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Location: UK

Date Of Injury: 2000

Five years ago, Bethan Hughes, 31, suffered 60 per cent burns in a horrific accident. She tells Radhika Sanghani what it was like being frightened of her own reflection – and how skin camouflage make-up has changed her life.

Bethan Hughes was 26 years old when she was in a serious car fire. All she remembers is being lifted into an air ambulance and waking up weeks later in a hospital with 50 to 60 per cent burns.

The doctors had given her a 20 per cent chance of survival. But, five years later, she’s alive and well. Only the mass scarring on her body and face acts as a reminder of what happened.

“I can look back quite fondly on my time in hospital now but at the time it was not pleasant at all,” says Hughes, now 31.

“It felt like I was being tortured. It was a horrendous time. I was on a respirator for months and months. I had no hair, one ear and I’d lost most of my face.”

Hughes was in hospital for seven months after the accident – no one else was involved fortunately. Over the last five years, she’s had dozens of surgeries from reconstructions to skin grafts.

“They do it piece-by-piece,” she explains. “It’s not scary anymore. You’re just like, ‘oh another general anaesthetic, never mind’.

“But I do think ‘when will all this stop?’”

The extensive surgery she’s had so far (there are many more operations to come) means that Hughes now has her face back. The only thing is – it looks nothing like the one she was born with.

It’s not surprising considering the level of burns she survived, but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.

“Seeing my face for the first time was quite awful,” she recounts. “I was like, ‘that’s pretty s*** isn’t it?’

“I had no hair. I had no eyebrows. I didn’t recognise the face I was born with. I could identify with Voldemort from Harry Potter.

“It’s weird being frightened by what’s in the mirror. Really strange. It was traumatic but not as much as you’d think. My friend said to me recently, the only thing I recognised about you was your teeth.

“It was probably more traumatic for them than me. I don’t see my face every day. I looked out of the same eyes I’ve always looked out of.”

The hardest part for Hughes came afterwards, when she found that she couldn’t walk down the street without people staring at her, or asking questions.

“I don’t like being the centre of attention. I just want to get on with my day. I don’t want to be congratulated for going out. Why should it be a big thing?

“I just wanted to be able to walk down the high street. I just want to buy a loaf of bread, I don’t want to tell you about the worst day of my life. Thank you for your interest, but it’s a constant reminder. If I wanted you to know, I’d tell you.

“You haven’t even said hello to me and you feel you have that right. You don’t.”

It’s why she decided to give skin camouflage a try. ‘Camo’ (as its known) is a proven method of using medically-based concealing products that are specially designed to cover scars, burns, tattoos or skin conditions.

Various organisations offer consultations, such as charity Changing Faces, which mainly helps people with scarring, or the British Association of Skin Camouflage, the leading provider for training professionals.

Hughes decided to work with the Katie Piper Foundation, which offers free consultations to adults with facial burns.

It all happened after she heard Katie Piper speak openly on TV about being raped and having acid thrown in her face at the age of 24.

“I heard about it through one of Katie’s documentaries months after I was discharged and I thought, ‘oh she’s just like me'” says Hughes.

“After all that time in hospital I hadn’t met anyone else with burns. It was quite an isolating experience. She mentioned their camouflage workshops, so I thought I’d give it a go.

“It hadn’t even occurred to me there was specialist make-up to cover scars – I’d go to Boots and pick up a foundation. But I had a one-on-one session with a make-up artist on how to use it all. You could really see a difference.”

It was straight after having skin camouflage put on that Hughes realised she desperately wanted to get her career back. She’d previously worked as a civil servant, having studied demography at Southampton University, and decided to apply as a researcher for the local council.

“After I’d had this appointment [for skin camouflage], I was like ‘I’m going to go and get a job interview’. And I got the job,” Hughes tells me.

“I didn’t feel as self-conscious of people sitting there staring at me. I was able to talk about my experience and prove I was the best person for the job. You know when you just need that little boost? It was brilliant.”

• Katie Piper: ‘People still stare at my face – but I don’t want them to feel sorry for me’

That session taught Hughes what ‘camo’ was best for her skin and how to apply it, so that she has the choice to cover up her scars if necessary.

But that doesn’t mean that she wears it every day. Instead Hughes has accepted her burns and refuses to cover them up just to look like everyone else. To her the ‘camo’ has been an invaluable part of her recovery process simply in that it gives her a choice.

“I wear it when I feel like I want to. It should be a choice when you wear it or not. Not everyone wears make-up normally. Why should I feel the need to always cover up my burns? It is what it is.

“I hated them to start with but now they’re a part of me. All my burns have a texture to them, they’re all swirly and my tummy looks like a crocodile handbag. I find it funny. I genuinely do. If you put it into context, none of this is important.”

She thinks it would have been worse if she’d only had a small area of burns to focus on – as majority of her body is covered, it just makes her realise how lucky she is to have survived.

If anything, she wears less make-up since the accident.

“I never would have gone out with make-up before. I was very, very self-conscious. Now I can take it or leave it, but it’s nice when you’re at a special event to wear make-up like other people do. It’s such a female thing to do, like, have nice eyelashes. It seems like a really small thing but it can have a huge impact on people.”

Rachael Denman-Tanner, a skin camouflage specialist who volunteers for the Katie Piper Foundation, explains:

“Depending on people’s levels of self-confidence and self-esteem it can be really beneficial. For some people it’s essential and they’ll wear it every day. For others, they don’t have a choice in covering absolutely everything so there’s a level of self-acceptance. When it works well they don’t always feel the need to wear it daily – it’s that choice that gives them confidence.”

Skin camouflage make-up is available via the NHS on prescription, but it’s not part of a GP’s job description to help people find the right product and colour for them.

It’s why these one-on-one consultations are so invaluable to burns survivors – and the biggest thing that Denman-Tanner often ends up teaching them is that less is more.

“A lot of people put too much on because they’re trying to cover something up,” she explains. “Actually sometimes you’re bringing more attention to it – I tend to just take away slight discolouration or focus on things like the eyes.”

The end result speaks for itself, as our video shows, and clients are then equipped with the right skills to apply their own ‘camo’ in under 10 minutes.

“It’s just nice to be able to put it on well so you don’t look like a drag queen,” says Hughes. “It just takes the attention off me. When I wear it, people don’t notice my burns. My colouring is slightly uneven and that’s it. It gives you a boost like having your hair cut or wearing new clothes. It’s an extra thing in your arsenal.

“And if people still look at me and think I look terrible? They should have seen what I looked like before. I’ve made huge steps forward. You wouldn’t even recognise me. In fact, I don’t even recognise me.”