Skin Bleaching on the Rise in Jamaica

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In the worldwide quest for beauty, it is not uncommon to see everything from plastic surgery to collagen employed for the most satisfying self-image.

But in the ghettos of Jamaica, the drive to lighten skin color is leading some to unintentionally deface themselves, leading health officials to begin warning against the practice of skin bleaching.

Among the most public examples is Jamaican dance hall singer Vybz Kartel. Is he beautifying or defacing himself?

Kartel revealed his lighter look earlier this year, causing an uproar among those who called the practice of bleaching a form of self-hatred. The singer is now promoting his own brand of “cake soap,” the product he said he’s used to lighten his skin. He said that his choice to lighten his skin can be compared to tanning.

“You can expect the unexpected. I feel comfortable with Black people lightening their skin. They want a different look. It’s tantamount to White people getting a sun tan,” Kartel said in an interview.

In one song, Kartel says, “The gyal and them love out me bleach out face,” and in another, he sings, “Say me look cool, like me wash me face with de cake soap.”

The artist exposed a growing skin bleaching trend in Jamaica where officials in 2007 launched a campaign called “Don’t Kill the Skin.”

While the trend has gone on for years, use of the products involved in the practice is not regulated in Jamaica, as it is in the U.S. Better known as “cake soap” or “blue soap” on the island, vendors can sell the products and trade them at will. The behavior has led to a crusade from health officials with one important message: Don’t bleach your skin.

Eva Lewis-Fuller, Jamaica’s director of health promotion and protection, said the reasons for bleaching do not outweigh the possible negative effects. She is pushing for more awareness of the drawbacks and health risks in a program of advisories and warnings aimed at the nearly three million inhabitants of the island nation.

“They want to be attractive to the opposite sex. They want career opportunities. But we are saying there are side effects and risks. It can disfigure your face,” she told the Associated Press.

Some natives use over-the-counter creams containing hydroquinone, which is linked to disfigurement and ochronosis, which causes dark spots on the skin. Skin-lightening creams with hydroquinone in them have a potency of 4 percent. But now, a cream with only 2 percent of the chemical is deemed safe in the U.S, according to WebMD contributor Dr. Bill Loyd.

Many of those who bleach their skin use creams that are “knockoffs.” Replica or not, Loyd said the cream contains a chemical has been on the “cancer watch list for decades. Long exposure to the chemical may cause cancer.”

Why would people put themselves at risk in the name of lightening their skin?
A desire to fit within the mainstream culture and to be favored in the job market may be among the reasons why Jamaicans attempt to bleach their skin, said Adrian Pinnock, a health care graduate student at University of Miami.

“It’s a cultural thing where people believe that the lighter their skin color is, the prettier they are or more presentable,” said Pinnock, who is also Jamaican.

Australia, Japan and the European Union have removed over-the-counter skin bleaching creams with hydroquinone in favor of products that use less harsh chemicals.