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Greater oversight of skin lightening products

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Educators, coaches and other people who work with teenagers have reported an alarming rise in the number of young people who are getting involved in the practice of skin bleaching here in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG).

A few months ago, the faculty at the Barrouallie Secondary School were so concerned, they called in a medical doctor to have a chat with some students who had been identified as being involved in the practice of applying creams and other products to the skin to lighten their complexion.{{more}} And interestingly, from all reports, more boys than girls are taken up with this very unhealthy and troubling practice here in SVG, although among adults, more local women seem to be obsessed with lightening their skin than men.

This, however, is not an SVG phenomenon, as according to the World Health Organization, in Nigeria, 77 per cent of women use skin lightening products on a regular basis. The practice is also widespread in Jamaica, Mali, Senegal, South Africa, Togo, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines and India.

The historical and socio-cultural reasons why people bleach are legend. They are tied in with some measure of self hate, as well as the lifestyles that the bleachers aspire to and the images they see of people who they feel live that life. Lighter skinned people, they feel, get jobs more easily, and are more attractive to the opposite sex.

Bleaching goes back to the Eurocentric standard of beauty that has existed for years and is perpetuated, even though to a lesser extent these days, by the media (including social media) and Hollywood. This practice did not start yesterday; there is a history to this whole process. Generations before this one also applied products to their skin to make them look fairer, but the chemicals being used today are more widely available, more effective and a lot more deadly.

Our young people observe that the dance hall artistes and other stars they look up to are involved in the process and reason that bleaching, therefore, is a cool and safe thing to do.

But it is not and this message must be driven home, especially to our youths. The drugs used in these skin lightening products have been proven to enter the blood through the skin and may result in changes unknown to the users. One typical example is the drug hydroquinone, a popular bleaching agent that has been implicated in several cancers and blood-related problems. Damage to the skin – wrinkles, severe acne and marks may be irreversible after prolonged use.

Not only are the products dangerous, but so too are some of the methods used to speed up the bleaching process, such as wrapping the body with plastic. In April 2007, a 17-year-old track athlete died in her sleep because of poisoning from high levels of a skin lightening drug. It was later revealed that she combined multiple creams and wrapped herself in plastic. The concentration of the multiple mixture, plus the wrapping, caused a large amount of the drug to enter her body. The levels were toxic and too large for her body to handle.

Although individuals have a right to bleach if they please, in the same way that poisons are not readily available for sale on the shelves of our pharmacies, there needs to be greater oversight and control of these deadly skin lightening products that are already being used by far too many people.

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