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Beauty and the skin cream beasts that can kill

By Kofi Dwinfour

Thousands of image-conscious Londoners are risking their health and even their lives by continuing to use banned skin lightening creams that can seriously damage organs and even cause cancer, according to London Trading Standards.

Skin lightening products - with ingredients banned in the UK

The capital’s trading standards’ association – which works with 33 local authorities – has renewed its health warnings to both the public and local traders about the damage such products can cause.

Steve Playle, from London Trading Standards, said: “Our teams have seized thousands of illegal products this year from hair and beauty salons and shops, highlighting the scale of the problem.

“Many of these products contain dangerously high levels of hydroquinone, mercury or steroids which can result in a host of problems from skin thinning and discoloration to organ damage and even cancer in the long run.

“It is an offence to distribute cosmetics which have not been tested and registered by their manufacturer or importer. These traders are not only playing with the lives of their customers, but they also face prosecution, fines of up to £20,000 and even the possibility of jail. Most of them know what they are doing is wrong as they hide the products under the counter or in stock cupboards.”

In the past month alone, traders in Enfield and Southwark have been successfully prosecuted, with one receiving a suspended jail sentence and both being ordered to pay thousands of pounds in costs and fines. A number of other prosecutions are imminent.

The Cosmetic Product Enforcement Regulations 2013 make it an offence to distribute non-approved cosmetics. Traders are advised by London Trading Standards to check their stock has the required labeling, including an ingredients’ list, EU name and address plus batch number.

Earlier this year, London Trading Standards tested a number of samples and found one in five contained hydroquinone, while one in six contained significantly high levels of mercury. Increasing numbers of creams with steroids are being seized. One sample, believed to be counterfeit, contained more than 8% hydroquinone.

London Trading Standards is a member of National Trading Standards, which funds and co-ordinate national and regional enforcement cases, including a project centred on ports to prevent the importation of illegal cosmetics. This resulted in 670,891 non-compliant cosmetics being detained, with 46,495 products assessed as unsafe.  However, illegal products are still finding their way onto the High Streets of London.

The use of skin lightening products is popular in the UK among women and some men from African, Asian, Latin American and Caribbean backgrounds. While some people will bleach their skin to remove blemishes, the main reason is rooted in complex social, cultural and historical factors and is often perceived as being modern and fashionable.

Influential beauty blogger Wande Alugo from London who founded the WandesWorld.com blog, is supporting the London Trading Standards campaign and is calling on people from ethnic backgrounds to be proud of their skin colour and heritage.

Skin lightening products - with ingredients banned in the UK

“I used skin lightening creams when I was younger because magazines didn’t have pictures of people who looked like me,” she said. “But I did some research and stopped when I realised just how harmful these products are.

“It’s crazy that people are prepared to risk their lives just to have a lighter complexion. We should all be proud of who we are, whatever our skin colour. Using these products can have the exact opposite effect of what you are trying to achieve. You don't want to be sitting in a hospital bed because you have self-inflicted skin cancer which is incurable.”

Wande features in a new video on the LondonTradingStandards.org.uk website talking about skin lightening after an earlier video on YouTube attracted more than half a million views. This highlights the scale of interest in the issue, which has intensified after two women claimed they were refused admission to a London nightclub for being ‘too black’. Singer Mica Paris has also recently criticised celebrities who lighten their skin.

Dr Bav Shergill from the British Skin Foundation added: “People need to be aware that there are dangers associated with use of these products, which are banned for a reason. The negative side effects can have a huge emotional impact on the user, so it is important to discuss any issues or concerns you have about skin tone with a health professional.”

Further information about the dangers of skin lightening can be found at londontradingstandards.org.uk. Anyone concerned about products should report the matter to the Citizens Advice Consumer Service 03454 040506 who will refer the matter to the local Trading Standards team.

What is your experience with skin lightening creams? Share your story or leave a comment

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The prevalence of skin disease exceeds that of obesity, hypertension, or cancer. Despite skin being the largest organ of the human body, dermatological research remains one of the most under funded areas of medicine. In a world where society has an increasing preoccupation with image and it’s importance to every aspect of a person’s life, sufferers of skin diseases are feeling and being more marginalised and isolated than ever.

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