Focus: Frontline - Skin Camouflage

Nathalie Thomas,

WHAT IT IS: A British Red Cross service in hospitals and prisons that shows people how to use specialist make-up to camouflage scarring, signs of self-harm, burns and blemishes

WHAT IT DOES: For this project, a British Red Cross volunteer visits inmates at Bullwood Hall prison and Young Offender Institution in Hockley, Essex

HOW IT'S FUNDED: All make-up artists are British Red Cross volunteers.

When Irene Selsby, Skin Camouflage co-ordinator for Essex, unpacks the contents of her black leather vanity bag, she has more powders and potions than a department store cosmetic counter. But the work that Irene has been doing for the past 14 years at prisons and hospitals across Essex isn't about vanity. It's about restoring confidence.

As 18-year-old Angela (prisoners' names have been changed) walks into the Bullwood Hall clinic and rolls up her sleeves, it's difficult not to flinch at her wrists, butchered by self-harm and a 'home-made' tattoo.

Angela explains how much she dislikes the cuts and marks. However, after 20 minutes of Irene's magic, it's a different story. The easy-to-apply creams Irene uses leave Angela's arms creamy white and blemish-free. "It's really good," Angela proclaims as her face breaks out into a cheeky smile.

Confidence boost

Not all of the women and girls who come to see Irene are as lucky as Angela, whose scars are relatively shallow. Irene makes it very clear from the outset that she's not a miracle worker. She can't remove the deeply embedded scars of self-harm or the evidence of extreme physical violence betrayed by some of the women's arms, legs, faces and necks.

Nor can she sometimes even cover them up completely. What she can do is camouflage them enough to leave the prisoners feeling that little bit more confident. And in a place such as Bullwood Hall, which houses 100 young offenders and 40 women serving life sentences, even a small confidence boost counts for a lot.

"It's good that, even though we're in prison, we can get help," says 18-year-old Hayley. "You can get very run down."

Irene visits Bullwood according to demand, and most of the girls and women visit her only once. But all of the Dermacolour creams Irene uses can be obtained from the prison pharmacy. No prisoner leaves Irene's hands without being shown how to continue applying the camouflage herself. "The Red Cross works only with things you can get on prescription," says Irene.

The delight is clear when prisoners realise they can continue using the waterproof creams that allow them to shower and swim scar-free. And continue they do, as 20-year-old Mandy testifies. She has been using the camouflage since last year and visits Irene for a second time.

"I suffer from bad acne," she says. "It has really helped."

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