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LGA - National alert over dangerous skin lightening creams

Shoppers are being warned about highly toxic skin lightening creams – likened to paint stripper - which put users at a greater risk of cancer.

The Local Government Association (LGA) is urging people to be wary of illegal lotions containing poisonous ingredients after councils seized dangerous creams from shops and supermarkets in recent raids.

There's a booming black market in skin lightening creams - and Trading Standards teams fear the banned products could be 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 banned products often fail to list their ingredients correctly, putting consumers at risk.

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.

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 High Street stores and online but prescription-only skin lightening lotions must only be used under the supervision of a doctor.

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

Trading Standards teams have recently seized banned skin lightening creams from shops and prosecuted retailers. Operations include:

  • West Sussex County Council – seized nearly 1,000 jars of highly toxic skin lightening cream at Gatwick Airport with a retail value of £14,000
  • Enfield Council – prosecuted a shop owner and his company who were ordered to pay £16,000 after selling skin lightening products containing mercury and hydroquinone
  • Birmingham City Council – prosecuted a supermarket who were ordered to pay more than £6,000 after stocking cosmetics containing potentially lethal lead and mercury
  • Northamptonshire County Council - seized skin lightening creams containing hydroquinone from local shops

The LGA, which represents more than 370 councils in England and Wales, is warning people to be cautious about buying skin lightening creams and 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:

"Beauty routines shouldn't come with the risk of ruining your looks forever. Cosmetic products such as skin creams should be safe to use but banned lotions containing toxic formulas could seriously damage your health, and even kill you, so they should be avoided at all costs.

"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.

Notes to editor:

Hydroquinone inhibits production of the pigment melanin which gives skin its colour. However, melanin is vital to protect the skin against UV radiation so the human body will over compensate by producing more melanin. This results in a darker patchier appearance developing; it damages the elastin strands in skin causing premature aging and weakening of the skin; it can cause neuropathy (a disease of the nervous system) and it can damage your liver. It also increases the risk of skin cancer from UV radiation. It has been illegal across the EU since 2001 to sell products with hydroquinone.

Mercury is toxic and accumulates in the body, damaging the kidneys, liver and brain, causing a host of serious and potentially fatal health problems. It can also cause foetal abnormalities if used in pregnancy. Mercury has been banned from consumer cosmetic products since 1996.


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.


A survey carried out by the British Skin Foundation found 16 per cent of dermatologists believe lightening creams are completely unsafe, and 80 per cent feel they are only safe when prescribed by a dermatologist.


Importers of cosmetics should have a technical file to show that the products have been tested and found to be safe.

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

Case studies:

In December 2015 Northamptonshire County Council's Trading Standards team seized skin lightening creams containing the banned substance hydroquinone from shops around Northampton.


In November an Enfield shop owner and his company were ordered to pay out £16,000 in costs and fines after selling skin lightening products containing mercury and hydroquinone. Some of the product labels misreported the true levels of the chemicals they contained. The prosecution was brought by Enfield Council.


In October almost 1,000 jars of cosmetics containing hydroquinone were seized by West Sussex County Council's Trading Standards at Gatwick Airport. The products, with a retail value of more than £14,000, had been flown in from Africa for distribution in the UK.


In September a Birmingham supermarket which stocked cosmetics packed with potentially lethal lead and mercury was prosecuted and ordered to pay more than £6,000.


In October Coventry City Council seized skin lightening cream containing hydroquinone at a shop and an online retailer in the city.


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