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In Senegal, Skin-Lightening Remains Popular Despite Health Risks

  • Anne Look

The World Health Organization says that a quarter of Senegalese women use skin-lightening products regularly. The products, even those claiming to have so-called "natural" components, can contain mercury, hydroquinone or caustic agents like sodium hydroxide. These are dangerous ingredients that can cause cancer and are potentially disfiguring. Some women in capital city Dakar say the risks are simply the price of beauty.

A typical beauty supply shop in Dakar, complete with a selection of skin-lightening creams and soaps.

"This lotion, it is carrot-based. It doesn't have hydroquinone. It will give you an amazing color," said shop clerk Adama Diagne. She said she uses a similar cream, and she tells clients to avoid the stronger ones that promise fast, dramatic results.

"It's a personal choice. No one pressures me. Some women want to be black every day, but I prefer to be a shade of brown. It's better for me. I like it," she said.

Women in Senegal say they lighten their skin for the same reasons women the world over say they tweeze, squeeze or alter their bodies - in sometimes dangerous ways - to achieve a certain standard of beauty... to catch a husband... to stand out in the crowd.. .to smooth out imperfections... to get ready for a special event.

Soap seller El Hadji Traore mixes together skin-lightening soaps that come from Ivory Coast, Mali and Ghana.

"This one is called 'three days before the wedding.' It is too strong to use alone. You have to mix it with other products," said Traore.

Women complain that products like this can sting their eyes or burn their skin. The harsh chemicals can weaken the tissue, leading to stretch marks and infections. But still they don't stop.

Senegalese filmmaker Khardiata Pouye Sall was so troubled by the trend, in particular among prominent female public figures in the media, that last year she made her international-award-winning documentary "This Color That Bothers Me." It aired nearly a dozen times on state television in Senegal.

"I used the most shocking images so that women would know what they are exposing themselves to," said Sall. "Many of them know the dangers, but don't think it will happen to them. It is hard to understand why a woman would tell herself that dark skin is not beautiful. It's in their heads. They want to please a man, to be loved. Or they want to please society, to succeed."

Sall said the government needs to better regulate the marketing and sale of these products, but also emphasized that educating women really is the only way to make skin-lightening go out of style.

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