- Associated Press - Monday, April 11, 2011

KINGSTON, JAMAICA | Mikeisha Simpson covers her body in greasy white cream and bundles up in a track suit to avoid the fierce sun of her native Jamaica, but she is not worried about skin cancer.

The 23-year-old resident of a Kingston ghetto hopes to transform her dark complexion to a cafe-au-lait color common among Jamaica’s elite and favored by many men in her neighborhood.

She thinks a fairer skin could be her ticket to a better life. So she spends her meager savings on cheap, black-market concoctions that promise to lighten her pigment.

Ms. Simpson and her friends ultimately shrug off public health campaigns and reggae hits blasting the reckless practice.

“I hear the people that say bleaching is bad, but I’ll still do it. I won’t stop ‘cause I like it and I know how to do it safe,” said Ms. Simpson, with her young daughter bouncing on her hip.

Roadside vendor Sophia McLennan sells a variety of skin-bleaching agents in Kingston. Lightening creams, powders and ointments are not effectively regulated in Jamaica. (Associated Press)
Roadside vendor Sophia McLennan sells a variety of skin-bleaching agents in Kingston. ... more >

People around the world often try to alter their skin colors, using tanning salons or dyes to darken it or other chemicals to lighten it. In the gritty slums of Jamaica, doctors say, the skin-lightening phenomenon has reached dangerous proportions.

“I know of one woman who started to bleach her baby. She got very annoyed with me when I told her to stop immediately, and she left my office. I often wonder what became of that baby,” said Dr. Neil Persadsingh, a leading Jamaican dermatologist.

Most Jamaican bleachers use over-the-counter creams, many of them knockoffs imported from West Africa. Long-term use of one of the ingredients, hydroquinone, has long been linked to a disfiguring condition called ochronosis that causes a splotchy darkening of the skin.

Doctors say abuse of bleaching lotions also has left a web of stretch marks across some Jamaicans’ faces.

In Japan, the European Union and Australia, hydroquinone has been removed from over-the-counter skin products and substituted with other chemicals because of concerns about health risks.

In the United States, over-the-counter creams containing up to 2 percent hydroquinone are recognized as safe and effective by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A proposed ban by the FDA in 2006 fizzled.

Lightening creams are not effectively regulated in Jamaica, where even roadside vendors sell tubes and plastic bags of powders and ointments from cardboard boxes stacked along sidewalks in market districts.

“Many of the tubes are unlabeled as to their actual ingredients,” said Dr. Richard Desnoes, president of the Dermatology Association of Jamaica.

Hard-core bleachers use illegal ointments smuggled into the Caribbean country that contain elements such as mercury, a metal that blocks production of melanin, which gives skin its color but can be toxic.

Some impoverished people resort to homemade mixtures of toothpaste or curry powder, which can stain skin with a yellowish tint.

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