Illegal skin lighteners
The supply of illegal skin lightening products is an ongoing community safety issue. Although men now use them, they're usually marketed towards women of ethnic backgrounds. The creams may be used to deal with localised blemishes or meet a desire for an overall lighter appearance. This desire is driven by complex social, cultural and historical factors.
Many skin lighteners contain ingredients that can cause permanent skin damage and are dangerous to health.
Hydroquinone is the most common ingredient and inhibits production of the pigment melanin which gives skin its colour. Melanin is vital to protect the skin against UV radiation, so your body will overcompensate by producing more melanin which can result in:
- a darker patchier appearance
- damaged elastin strands in skin, causing premature ageing and weakening of the skin
- neuropathy, a disease of the nervous system
- damage to your liver
- an increased risk of the development of skin cancer from UV radiation
Many countries have now banned hydroquinone, including Britain and other EU states.
Mercury and its compounds are also found in skin lightening creams. Mercury is very toxic and has been banned from use in cosmetics. This toxic element accumulates in the body and damages the kidneys, liver and brain causing serious and potentially fatal health problems.
Topical corticosteroids (steroids)
Topical corticosteroids, including clobetasol propionate, betamethasone and fluocinonide, are prohibited as an ingredient in cosmetics. There are legitimate medicinal uses for steroids, but due to potentially harmful side effects, their use should be strictly controlled by a doctor or pharmacist. In the UK, any product containing steroids must be licensed and should only be available on prescription.
The misuse of corticosteroids can cause:
- skin thinning, stretch marks, bruising and broken veins
- eczema or acne
- an increased risk of skin infection, sores and boils
- an abnormal release of hormones that control and stabilise vital functions, with very serious or life threatening consequences
Why these products are still being sold
Some countries haven't banned hydroquinone or mercury in skin lighteners, so it's legal to manufacture and supply them in those countries.
Steroid-based creams are available in the UK on prescription because they have legitimate medicinal uses. However, they require a product licence and shouldn't be found in cosmetic products. Other non-EU countries may have different laws.
We're doing our best to ensure these products are no longer sold, including advising local traders of the laws regarding the sale of illegal items. However, businesses don't always check if their stock is legal and whilst there's a demand for these products unscrupulous traders may sell it illegally, with no regard for the health of their customers.
Who enforces the law
Every local authority has a Trading Standards service that enforces consumer protection laws such as the safety regulations for cosmetics. Regarding creams with steroids, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will also be responsible as the products can be classed as medicines.
Our Trading Standards routinely work in partnership with the MHRA to enforce laws. We carry out undercover test purchasing to ensure retailers aren't selling illegal items, carry out spot checks at businesses and seize illegal items.
We've compiled a list of products found to contain illegal ingredients by trading standards across London and elsewhere. It's available via the London Trading Standards website. The list is just a small snapshot though, as there are hundreds of different brands from around the world. Some products are available in two or more versions depending on the countries they're intended to be marketed in. Many leading brands are reformulated with new ingredients; so if you're selling skin lighteners, you must check the labelling and contact us if you have any questions.
Prosecution of sellers
Traders of these illegal products can be given unlimited fines and sent to prison. They can also have their assets confiscated if they've benefited from illegal activity. Any illegal products found can be seized by Trading Standards or the MHRA.
Our undercover test purchases and inspections have led to many businesses being prosecuted. The severe penalties imposed should have a deterrent effect on other retailers but unfortunately, some continue to put profit over safety.
Since 2002, Southwark Council has successfully prosecuted 56 companies or individuals from 29 businesses, mainly based in Peckham and Walworth. Sentences have included the UK's first ever prison sentence for such offences of 20 months. Total fines and costs amount to £486,000 by the end of 2020.
Page last updated: 13 March 2023