DAKAR, Senegal, Jan. 12, 2009 -- To see the effects of racism based on skin color most clearly, one should go to the developing world.
In richer countries people are increasingly comfortable, and successful, regardless of their natural skin color, but in many African countries like Senegal, trying to change one's skin color is still seen as a way to get ahead.
"Some Senegalese women," Emilie, a student at Dakar University, told ABC News, "are trying to look like the white girls they see on television."
From ads on highway billboards, to little stands in marketplaces, skin bleaching products are almost everywhere.
They sell well, despite what public health officials say are grave risks of using them, including cancer.
The cheapest creams cost around $5 per tube, a small fortune in Senegal, and they are also among the most dangerous.
At a market in Dakar, a young hairdresser who was unwilling to reveal her name told ABC News she had used the creams. "It's more beautiful to have lighter skin. A bit lighter, it's a bit better," she said.
Who says it is more beautiful to have light skin, ABC News asked. "Well, women of course, yes. Men prefer women with lighter skin."
She said, however, that she knew the creams can be dangerous and that she tried "to use products, which are not too strong."
Some of these creams contain chemicals that can wipe out the skin's natural protections, doctors say.
"I cannot tell you about the dangers of those creams," said a man who identified himself as Buzz. He sells the cream on the streets of Dakar. "I am not an expert, I am just a salesman."
According to experts, however, the effects can be devastating
"We have diagnosed the first cases of skin cancer," Dakar dermatologist Fatimata Ly told ABC News, "with women who have been using those creams for a long time."
Infection, acne and facial hair growth are other side effects women face, yet skin bleaching is still on the rise, despite campaigns to raise awareness of the dangers.
Women from all walks of life, from the low-income bracket to the wealthy, well-educated, bleach their skins, according to Ly. "No one is spared," she said,
More Africans Use Products to Lighten Their Skin Color
Even a few men lighten their skins.
Buzz, the salesman, said he is aware that some men use bleaching creams, but he said he does not know anyone among his friends or relatives who does it.
Asked whether he ever tried the products he sells, Buzz said with a grin: "No, not at all, because I don't need these products to be a gentleman. I am already one."
He said, however, that it is easy to spot someone who bleaches their skin.
"Imagine there is someone you know well," said Buzz, "and then you don't see that person for a while. When you see them again, you find out their skin looks different. Then you know they use products."
It is somehow considered shameful for Senegalese men to lighten their skins, partly because it is often associated with homosexuality, a taboo in Senegal. Last week nine men were imprisoned in Dakar for homosexuality; they were given eight years for "unnatural acts."
Skin bleaching is not only widespread in Senegal, but all across western Africa. It is also very popular in Asia.
Commercials for a product in India called Fair and Lovely prompted outrage for linking skin color to success and beauty.
However, these products sell, precisely because buyers believe that having lighter skin leads to to success and happiness.
In Dakar and so many other places, even women who are aware of the dangers fall prey to the idea that if only their skin were lighter, their lives would be better.
"Some young men prefer women with fair skin," Emilie said. "This leads them [the women] to bleach their skins."
Some men encourage their partners to use these creams, according to Ly. Some even buy these expensive products on their behalf.
Many women are also influenced by their female friends and relatives.
"Women who lighten their skins are part of a group," said Ly. "Those who don't, belong to another group."
"Women bleach their skin to come across as modern women who can modify their skin tone as they wish."
Dangers of Skin Bleaching
Even more worrying is the widespread habit of bleaching one's skin during pregnancy, according to Ly, who says it is fashionable for women to look fairer at the baby's presentation party.
During pregnancy, the woman's skin is even more vulnerable and there are worries that the corticoids contained in some creams may increase the risks of diabetes for the baby.
According to Ly, some cosmetic companies act irresponsibly. They don't always clearly indicate on the tube that it contains dangerous chemicals, she said.
Sadly, many women who realize that these creams are harmful find it difficult to kick the habit.
"As soon as they stop," said Ly, "their tone becomes darker, and people around them assume they have a problem. So they resume. It's a vicious circle, an addiction."
Additional reporting by Gallagher Fenwick and Idrissa Sane.