Old safety problems and black market sales threaten skin lightening promise

By Guy Montague-Jones

- Last updated on GMT

Skin lightening products are tipped for global sales success but safety issues and black market sales remain an impediment to growth.

Like many cosmetics, skin lightening products are not a new idea. The Roman Emperor Nero and his wife Poppaea used white lead and chalk to whiten their skin, but now skin whitening is entering the mainstream.

High growth predictions

According to the organisers of In-Cosmetics Asia, who are hosting a skin whitening conference at the show in October, the category is worth €13bn and continues to grow rapidly.

A report from Global Industry Analysts, published earlier this month, supported this view and predicted continued high growth, especially in new Western markets and among male users.

Despite these positive assessments, old safety issues and black market sales threaten to hamper the potential of skin lightening.

“Skin whitening remains a controversial topic, given the active ingredients historically used,”​ said Sarah Gibson, exhibition manager at In-Cosmetics Asia.

Historical impediment

In South Africa, regulations surrounding skin lightening products are very strict, both in relation to claims and ingredients.

Pam Dillon, the executive director of CTFA South Africa, told Cosmetics Design that the strict laws on skin lighteners are a consequence of people suffering severe skin problems in the past, after using such products.

Historically skin lightening products have contained some unsafe ingredients such as hydroquinone and mercury, which have since been banned in most major Western markets. In Europe mercury has been banned from use in cosmetics since 1976 and hydroquinone since 2000.

Black market creams

Despite these bans, the problem of dangerous skin lightening products has not gone away, with black market lighteners cropping up in many major markets.

Dillon said that in South Africa there was a problem with imported Chinese lighteners entering the market.

In the UK, doctors warned in the Lancet medical journal of the severe threat posed by black market creams.

Dr. Tricia Tan and Dr. Tony Goldstone of the Endrocrine Unit in the Department of Investigative Medicine, Imperial College said: “Patients are often reluctant to admit that they have used skin-lightening creams – especially if these are supplied illegally.

Similarly, doctors can be unaware of the need to inquire. But the market is worth millions of pounds a year, in the UK alone. Creams can contain toxic substances, such as steroids and hydroxyquinone – and patients are typically unaware of the risks.”

Dr Emma Meredith, scientific director of the CTPA, told Cosmetics Design: “Consumers must be careful to buy skin lightening products from reputable sources. Lighteners bought from such bona fide sources are subject to strict legal requirements that ensure their safety.”

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