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Skin bleaching fad spreads in Africa

Skin bleaching has long been a problem in parts of Africa where a light complexion is seen by some as sexy or fashionable and by others as a ticket to success.

But experts at a recent international skin conference in Ivory Coast say the problem is getting worse _ spreading both within the continent and further afield.

Dutch doctor Wiete Westerhof likens blacks who want to lighten their skin to whites in search of the perfect suntan.

"They don't want actually to look white, because that is not their ideal. But they want to look lighter," he told Reuters on the sidelines of the three-day conference.

"The opposite is also true. White people don't want to look like a black person when they tan. But they want to give the impression that they are healthy, wealthy, and so on."

He said that in both cases the individuals wanted to impress, and improve their chances in life. "It is something irrational."

But while some doctors worry about the effect of harmful solar rays on white skin, others are equally concerned about the harmful side-effects of skin bleaching.

"Skin bleaching is becoming rampant in Africa," said Dr. Andrew Kosia, a dermatologist from Sierra Leone.

"Ghana and Nigeria are seen in the forefront of users," added Dr. H.D. Addo, from Ghana, who also singles out Senegal, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone.

Addo said many users ignore the dangers or are unaware of them. "They insist on doing it because they believe they will be the exception. They only see the immediate benefits."

Some women patients bleach their skin "purely for fashion." Others blame men, who, they say, prefer women with lighter complexions.

Dr. Pierre-Andre Aka from Ivory Coast said that in Senegal, where polygamy is prevalent, rival wives lighten their skin to compete for their husband's favor.

Addo recalled a more unusual case. "A woman in her late 50s told me that she wanted to look pretty on the day of her death when she would be lying on public view," he says.

But the dangers cannot be ignored. Toxic products damage the skin, often disfiguring those who use them.

This can take the form of unsightly dark or white patches.

In some cases, stretch marks appear in strange places or the skin becomes very thin and prone to bleeding and infection.