Toxic skin lightening creams warning amid industry boom

“Skin creams containing banned ingredients are very dangerous and could seriously damage your health, scar you for life and even kill you, so they should be avoided at all costs."


Pot of cosmetic cream

Highly toxic skin lightening creams that act like paint stripper and increase the risk of cancer are being sold on high streets, fuelled by a boom in the industry, councils warn today.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils in England and Wales, is urging people to avoid illegal creams containing banned ingredients after recent seizures of dangerous products by councils.

Councils are concerned that criminals are exploiting a soaring market in skin lightening creams - which is predicted to almost double over 10 years – by making inferior toxic products which are being sold by rogue retailers, as well as being on sale at low prices online and at car boot sales and market stalls.

Many of the toxic creams contain the bleaching agent hydroquinone - described as the biological equivalent of paint stripper – while others can include potentially deadly levels of mercury. But the illegal products typically list their often harmful ingredients incorrectly, putting consumers at risk.

Hydroquinone can remove the top layer of skin, increasing the risk of skin cancer and cause fatal liver and kidney damage. Mercury can cause similar life-threatening health problems.

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.

They can be bought from shops and online but prescription-only skin lightening lotions must only be used under the supervision of a doctor.

Genuine skin lightening creams can be expensive to buy, which is why illegal, toxic versions are flooding the market as they are cheap and relatively easy to create.

The LGA is warning people to be cautious about buying skin lightening creams and is reminding irresponsible traders they face prosecution and significant fines if they are found selling illegal lotions.

Amid funding pressures and demand for services, councils have been forced to reduce trading standards budgets by around half since 2010. The LGA also said councils need a long-term, sustainable funding settlement in next year’s Spending Review so they can adequately provide the vital trading standards services that keep residents safe.

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

“Skin creams containing banned ingredients are very dangerous and could seriously damage your health, scar you for life and even kill you, so they should be avoided at all costs.

“Consumers should always check the ingredients of their skin creams, be suspicious of very low prices which are likely to indicate the lotion is fake and potentially harmful, and never use a product containing hydroquinone. If the product doesn’t display the ingredients at all, then don’t use it.

“Councils have been targeting rogue retailers selling these banned creams and people should report any concerns so that town halls can take action to prevent anyone from buying these lotions, potentially ruining their looks forever.

“Next year’s Spending Review needs to provide the long-term, sustainable settlement councils need to ensure trading standards teams are sufficiently funded to protect the public from harm.”

Anyone who has purchased a cream they think could be banned should stop using it immediately and report it to their local council’s trading standards team or call the Citizens Advice Consumer Service on 03454 04 05 06.

Case studies

  • Trading standards officers at the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham seized skin whitening products, including some containing the banned ingredient hydroquinone, from a store in Dagenham. A total of 360 products were seized. Officers also uncovered labels which listed incorrect ingredients and failed to meet EU regulations. The store’s owners were fined £6,500 and ordered to pay £8,010 to the council.
  • Southwark Council is one of the most proactive enforcement authorities in the UK, in regard to finding and prosecuting vendors of illegal skin lighteners. It recently seized 275 products from a cosmetics store after tests showed that some contained hydroquinone. The council seized about 2,900 skin whitening products which had mostly been imported directly from Nigeria, in a single raid in 2018. In the same year, the council also secured what is believed to be the UK’s first jail sentence for the sale of dangerous skin lightening products. This was one of nine guilty convictions secured by Southwark Council, for the sale of toxic skin lighteners, since 2015.
  • A quarter of a tonne of illegal skin lightening products were seized at Gatwick Airport after arriving from Cameroon. Samples tested by West Sussex Trading Standards were found to contain hydroquinone. All of the products were incorrectly labelled. The operation follows a similar seizure of more than a tonne of potentially cancer-causing cosmetics, including skin lightening creams, at Gatwick Airport. Ten products were sent for testing by West Sussex Trading Standards and all failed. Eight contained hydroquinone and two were incorrectly labelled.

Notes 

  1. Lightening creams can be bought from high street stores and online but prescription-only skin lightening lotions - which may contain hydroquinone - must only be used under the supervision of a doctor
  2. Importers of cosmetics should have a technical file to show that the products have been tested and found to be safe.
  3. Company bosses who sell banned cosmetic products can be fined up to £20,000 and sent to prison for up to a year.
  4. Illegal skin lightening creams can come into the UK from around the world, including Pakistan, the Middle East and the Caribbean. 
  5. In 2017, the global skin-lightening industry was worth $4.8 billion (£3.9 billion), and it is projected to grow to $8.9 billion (£7.3 billion) by 2027.
  6. Councils in England have seen a 56 per cent reduction in trading standards officers since 2009 and a 46 per cent reduction in nominal budgets for trading standards services since 2011, according to a 2016 National Audit Office report.