05/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Beauty and the Bleach

Mama Apiyo's stall in the Nairobi marketplace is a wealth of beauty secrets. There are balms for styling hair and make-up to cover blemishes.

Then, there are the creams and lotions promising a lighter complexion.

To skeptics, the 35-year-old vendor points to her and her assistant, Ndunge. The women don't just sell, they model. The light-coloured skin on their faces and arms are meant to convince buyers of a "beautiful end product."

Mama Apiyo says, "Both men and women adore and love the after effects of bleaching which is light and fair skin."

The two women have made a decent living selling the popular brands. But, you don't have to look far to see the true cost of this so-called beauty.

Mama Apiyo has dark blotches of colour around her eyes. Doctors say this irreversible discolouration is the result of overuse. For 30-year-old Ndunge, her skin is more of a translucent yellow. The skin around her eyes even has a tinge of green.

This stall represents an extreme in the quest for this perception of ideal beauty. Yet, bleaching is a cosmetic practice becoming more and more common in countries around the world. For the companies who make the products, the profit is in the billions.

"In Jamaica, it's not abnormal to see people day-to-day who have lightened their skin," says Dr. Neil Persadsingh, a dermatologist in the Caribbean nation. "Most people think its fine. They associate lighter skin with the opportunity to find a mate or get a job."

In many cultures, lighter skin is often associated with higher privilege. In Asia, actors and actresses with paler skin are usually cast in the more admirable roles. In India, complexion has deep roots in the caste system. There, the products are so widely use that in 2007, commercials featured endorsements by one of Bollywood's top-earning actors and the former Miss World.

In Africa, Mama Apiyo says women, and to a lesser extent men, bleach because of the influences around them. She says advertisements mostly portray light-skinned women who quickly become the envy of people everywhere. Then, she says women are persuaded by boyfriends and husbands to look more like the advertisements.

"Most times, their men friends admire light-skinned women," says Mama Apiyo. "They feel the pressure to alter their dark-skinned pigment so as to retain their men."

As a result, many put themselves in danger.

Persadsingh says bleaching products work by blocking the production of melanin, a compound that produces skin tone. It also protects against skin cancer. He fears that on top of short-term sides effect like patchy discolouration, glaucoma or stillbirths, users will find increased rates of skin cancer later in life.

Banning the products usually isn't enough as homemade concoctions are already used among the poor. These are often made using hair relaxer, household bleach and other chemicals. The reactions can cause permanent disfigurement from burns.

Still, few heed these warnings.

"After seeing a woman who has flawless skin and have attractive beauty, they wish to be like the model on the advertisement," says Mama Apiyo. "They will go buy the product in spite of being told of the consequences."

That's why stigmas related to darker skin need to change.

This is a process that will take time. It involves breaking down stereotypes built by Western influences and overcoming long-standing traditions, such as the caste system. Although it will be a struggle, it can happen by celebrating positive images of all skin colours.

Government and advertising groups need to lead the way. By ensuring a balance of colours in advertisements and movies, this exposes people to a broader definition of beauty. Hopefully, that will stop people from going to the extremes.

For now, Mama Apiyo continues to woo buyers with neatly-stacked jars and what she calls a beautiful end product. Sadly, her business is booming.