Toxic skin bleaching creams still rife in local cosmetics market, UK councils warn

The illegal, cancer-linked creams – which contain banned ingredients such as mercury and bleaching agent hydroquinone – are flooding the market, putting unwitting mostly black and dark skinned consumers at risk of permanently ruining their looks and or damaging their health.

The Local Government Association, which represents 370 councils in England and Wales, has issued a warning to consumers following a series of recent seizures of the toxic creams and prosecutions of individuals selling them.

It is urging shoppers to avoid buying suspiciously cheap skin creams from retailers, car boot sales, market stalls and websites, particularly if they appear to be well-known brands, as they could be fake and dangerous.

Many of the illegal creams contain hydroquinone – described as the biological equivalent of paint stripper – which can increase the risk of skin cancer as well as damaging internal organs. But the products, which are cheap and relatively easy to create, often fail to list their ingredients correctly, putting consumers at risk.

Councils’ Trading Standards teams have recently seized from sale skin lightening creams containing a range of toxic substances. Operations include:

• A Hackney business and its director were ordered to pay £59,793 for selling banned skin lightening products – thought to be the largest fine issued in London for a breach of cosmetics regulations – following a prosecution brought by Hackney Council.

• A shopkeeper in Peckham, London, was given a suspended prison sentence and ordered to pay nearly £26,000 after selling toxic skin lightening creams on an “under-the-counter” basis in a prosecution brought by Southwark Council’s Trading Standards team. About 2,500 products were seized from the store.

• A Devon-based online trader who sold skin lighteners containing hydroquinone and spot removing cream containing mercury, was given a suspended prison sentence, following a prosecution by Devon, Somerset and Torbay Trading Standards. More than 600 items were seized and destroyed.

• A Manchester businesswoman was ordered to pay more than £2,400 after selling skin lightening products containing hydroquinone, following a prosecution brought by Manchester City Council. A total of 51 products were seized.

Skin lightening products are largely marketed at men and women from black and minority ethnic groups, but can also be used to lighten blemishes and scars for white people.

The LGA is reminding irresponsible traders they face prosecution and hefty fines if they are found selling illegal lotions.

Cllr Simon Blackburn, Chair of the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said:

“These banned beauty products are being sold by unscrupulous traders who are more interested in making money than the health of their customers.

“Cosmetics should be safe to use, but banned lotions containing toxic formulas can act like paint stripper. This can cause irreversible skin damage, as well as damaging internal organs like the liver and increasing the risk of cancer. They could cost you your life and should be avoided at all costs.

“Because these illegal lotions are still being sold widely on the illegal market, largely without listing their harmful ingredients, consumers are at risk of buying them unaware of the dangers they pose.

“If the price looks too good to be true, then it probably is. Consumers should always check the ingredients of their skin creams and never use a product containing hydroquinone. If the product doesn’t display the ingredients at all, then consumers are also advised not to use it.

“Councils have been targeting rogue retailers selling these banned creams and the large fines they have received should deter others from selling these dangerous products.

“Anyone who has purchased a cream they think could be banned should stop using it immediately and report it to their local Trading Standards team.

“It is vital that people report any concerns, so that our officers can take action to prevent anyone being harmed or scarred for life.”

Anyone who has concerns about a banned or counterfeit cosmetic product, or would like to report a trader selling such items, can contact Trading Standards by calling the Citizens Advice Consumer Service on 03454 04 05 06.

Case studies

• A Dalston hair and cosmetics company and its director were fined £42,000 and £14,000, respectively, for selling banned skin lightening products containing hydroquinone following a prosecution brought by Hackney Council. They had been previously been prosecuted for the same offence. The full costs and fines, including a victim surcharge, totalled £59,793, which is thought to be the largest fine issued in London for a breach of cosmetics regulations.

• A Devon-based online trader who made thousands of pounds from selling banned and dangerous cosmetics, including skin lighteners containing hydroquinone levels of 10.8 per cent and spot removing cream containing mercury, was given a suspended prison sentence, following a prosecution by Devon, Somerset and Torbay Trading Standards. The woman used her own website and ebay account to advertise her goods which she imported from the Philippines without carrying out any checks or records. More than 600 items were seized and destroyed.

• A shopkeeper in Peckham, London, was given a suspended prison sentence after selling toxic skin lightening creams on an “under-the-counter” basis in a prosecution brought by Southwark Council’s Trading Standards team. The retailer was ordered to pay £25,915 in total (£8,000 fine, £13,027 costs and £4,888 under the Proceeds of Crime Act). About 2,500 products were seized from the store. The banned products contained cream containing 13 per cent hydroquinone and another lotion containing corticosteroids – both prescription-only drugs – but this information was not stated on the label of ingredients.

• A Manchester businesswoman was ordered to pay more than £2,400 after selling skin lightening products containing hydroquinone, following a prosecution brought by Manchester City Council. A total of 51 products were seized. The woman had previously been warned about supplying these types of skin lightening products when similar items she had imported were intercepted at Manchester Airport.

Notes

1 Hydroquinone can remove the top layer of skin and the body’s natural defence against infection and the sun. It can also increase the risk of skin cancer and cause fatal liver and kidney damage. Mercury can cause similar life-threatening health problems. The facts and risks of skin lightening can be read here.

2 The global skin lightening products market is expected to be worth around £17 billion by the end of 2027, growing at an average annual rate of 6.1 per cent, according to a report by Future Market Insights, ‘Skin Lightening Products Market: Global Industry Analysis 2012-2016 and Opportunity Assessment 2017-2027’.

3 Company bosses who sell banned cosmetic products can be fined up to £20,000 or sent to prison for a year.

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