There are fears some African refugee women may be turning to powerful steroid creams to lighten their skin.
Skin bleaching is a major concern for Monica Forson who is co-founder and president of the Afro-Australian Student Organisation and youth advisor to the Ghana Association of Australia.
Ms Forson said it was sad that people felt compelled to use skin lightening creams.
“I know my friends don’t necessarily skin bleach, but they have been pressured to do so by parents.”
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) skin lightening containing potentially toxic cortisone steroid is a global issue.
It said Nigeria had the biggest usage, with 77 per cent of women obtaining it.
The practice is also widespread in parts of south and central Asia.
Those toxic creams can cause dizziness, fatigue, and swelling of the face and abdomen, and in extreme cases it can cause kidney problems and diabetes.
There are safer, legal creams, which do not contain cortisone, but millions of women are risking the harmful ones, amid claims they are more powerful in lightening skin.
Skin bleaching cases in Hunter Valley
Concerns about the use of cortisone creams to lighten skin were first raised by Hunter Valley health officials in 2008, prompting an education campaign to assist the high number of African refugees in the Hunter Valley.
Newcastle dermatologist Dr Avland Amiri believes he has encountered cases of it in his practice.
He said he recently saw a woman with stretchmarks all over her body — a telltale sign of using the cream.
“She had a skin type 5, or dark skin, and she was referred to me by her GP because she started having multiple stretch marks on her body,” he said.
“I started investigating and there wasn’t any change in her hormonal levels or Cushings syndrome.
“I realised that her skin is much whiter on her legs and on all the places where the stretchmarks were,” Dr Amiri said.
He said it took the woman some time to admit to him that she had actually been using a cortisone skin bleaching cream.
The cream is sold by illegal street vendors in the woman’s home country for as little at $US5 a tub.
It is believed to be sourced by family members overseas and sent to women living in Australia.
Dr Amiri said it was not something he would expect to see in his Newcastle practice.
“She said she got it from her home country, and like everyone was using it in her family,” Dr Amiri said.
“You definitely wouldn’t imagine someone walking into this clinic with that issue,” he said.
“It is definitely something that she has got overseas and the issue is the amount of reassurance that they get from the places that they get the cream.”
Refugee advocate Diana Santleben said she had also encountered the practice firsthand.
Sister Santleben said she was horrified when she saw the effects on a woman, whom she believed to have a skin condition, only to be told the woman was using a magnesium cream.
“I saw one lady who had taken the advice of somebody to rub some cream,” she said.
“It was like really bad skin treatment and it will never wash off, it is there forever.
“You know she covers it with clothes because what she’s rubbed onto her skin has gone right down in there.
“It is like a white tattoo. Where the cream has gone the colour has gone out of her skin,” Sister Santleben said.
“It’s bleached and it’s terrible.”
African women have few role models in Australia
Sister Santleben said it was upsetting that people felt compelling to bleach their skin.
“What sort of behaviour have other people exhibited to make them think that if you can change the colour of your skin you can change the way people treat you,” Sister Santleban said.
“I’m just delighted to see the beauty in our young African kids. They don’t need to be ashamed or hurt by the stupidity of a tiny minority and they need to know they most of us love to see their beauty.”
According to Ms Forson, African women had few role models in Australian media.
“It doesn’t really help in Australia that not many young Africans can see a positive role model in the community or on their TV screens.
“Once you see more diversity on our screens, I think it might well change the issues that we are facing in the community.
Ms Forson said it was devastating that there was a perception that being fairer boosted your marriage prospects.
“I feel like as much as you can tell a friend that you shouldn’t do something, if it is culturally something that is seen as a norm then they going to continue to do it, particularly if the young women’s marriage prospects are kind of reduced if you are of a darker skin tone,” she said.
“I think it is a systemic issue.”
This story originally appeared on ABC News.
© 2015 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved. Read the ABC Disclaimer here.