Skin-whitening creams can be as toxic as paint strippers and should be “avoided at all costs,” the UK’s Local Government Association has warned.
The creams “act like paint stripper and increase the risk of cancer,” said the LGA, which represents regional councils in England and Wales.
Many skin-whitening products are banned in the UK due to harmful ingredients – but recent seizures of banned products indicate they are still being sold in a booming industry, the LGA said in its press release.
Most of those products include the banned ingredient hydroquinon – a bleaching agent which is “the biological equivalent of paint stripper,” said the LGA statement. It essentially removes the top later of skin, increasing cancer risk and potentially causing liver and kidney damage.
Mercury, another common banned ingredient, can cause reduced resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, liver damage, anxiety, depression or psychosis, according to the World Health Organization.
“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,” said Blackpool Councilor Simon Blackburn in the press release.
Skin-whitening creams with natural or non-harmful ingredients are legally allowed, but they are often expensive, driving up the demand for cheap and dangerous banned products, said the LGA. Company executives who are caught selling these banned products can be fined up to 20,000 pounds (about $24,500) and jailed for up to a year.
The illegal creams and products are often sold at local markets, said the LGA – but they are on shelves at cosmetics stores as well. In May, hundreds of products containing hydroquinon were seized from stores in areas outside London. The owners of one store were fined 6,500 pounds (about $8,000) and ordered to pay 8,010 (about $9,800) to the local council. Last August, a shopkeeper in South London was sentenced to 20 months in prison after selling products with hydroquinon and mislabeling their cosmetics.
Booming global industry
Globally, the demand for whiteners is climbing, projected to reach $31.2 billion by 2024, especially in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, according to market intelligence firm Global Industry Analysts.
The Asia-Pacific market is the most lucrative region, making up more than half of the global market – an estimated $7.5 billion out of $13.3 billion – in 2017, according to Future Market Insights.
The products are particularly popular in places where beauty norms often favor lighter skin. Routine skin-whitener use ranges from 25% in Mali to 77% in Nigeria, and it’s 40% in China, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea, according to the World Health Organization. A 2017 study found that more than half of survey respondents in India had tried skin whiteners.
But skin safety and health concerns aside, many critics say skin-whitening products are inherently problematic for furthering the racialized narrative of fair-skinned beauty.
The issue also made headlines recently after two Japanese comedians reportedly joked that tennis star Naomi Osaka, who is of Haitian and Japanese descent, should bleach her skin. The comments sparked outrage on social media, and the two comedians issued apologies on the entertainment company’s website.
Osaka responded to the comments on Sunday on Twitter. “‘Too sunburned’ lol that’s wild. Little did they know, with Shiseido anessa perfect uv sunscreen I never get sunburned,” she posted.
Marian Lu contributed reporting.