The sale of whitening creams containing certain ingredients is illegal in the UK but they are still being sold on the high street – even in shops that have been previously prosecuted for selling them, an investigation has found.
Products that contain mercury, hydroquinone and corticosteroids – which can cause kidney, liver and nerve damage and foetal abnormalities – are banned from being sold over-the-counter, although they are available on prescription from a doctor.
Despite the ban, these creams are being sold in UK shops, largely due to a lack of resources in policing them, according to an investigation by the BBC. The corporation sent undercover journalists to 17 shops (six of which had previously been prosecuted for doing so) across London, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester to see how many illegal creams they could buy. Thirteen were found to be selling banned products, with the dangerous products still available in four of the six shops that had already been prosecuted.
YouTubers Arlene Dihoulou and Mariam Omotunde, who used skin-lightening products in their teens, front an accompanying short documentary on the topic for BBC Stories. In How I learned to love my skin colour, the pair reveal they had been following in family members' footsteps by using the creams and that they had not realised the products were illegal.
Many women of colour report feeling pressure to be lighter skinned, the pair explain. Mariam, 22, says she first began using bleaching creams during secondary school after her peers told her she would look "so much prettier if [her] chest was the same colour as [her] face", while 22-year-old Arlene says she had wanted to "fit in" and be considered "desirable".
In the film, they are shocked to be told that of the 20 random samples of lightening products put in front of them, purchased from shop shelves, under the counter and online, 50% contained banned substances.
One woman found to be selling the illegal creams when the film was made, in June 2018, was Meg Chucks – even though she was prosecuted and received a fine of £1,400 (plus £1,040 in legal costs) for doing so in October 2017. BBC footage shows Chucks, whose store TM Cosmetics is in Moston, Greater Manchester, selling a cream containing hydroquinone, despite her assurances that it only featured "just normal, natural, very nice" ingredients.
For people who use skin-lightening creams, it can be difficult to stop, as the film explores. "It's like taking drugs. It's not easy to tell someone to stop smoking, stop drinking, stop taking drugs," former user Safi George tells Mariam and Arlene, adding that she "would have lost [her] life" if she hadn't sought help from medical professionals.
Sujata Jolly, a skincare research scientist interviewed in the film, explains that common side-effects of these creams include a burned-looking appearance to the skin and foetal damage in pregnant women, as well as kidney, nerve and liver damage, scarring, skin thinning and a potentially enhanced risk of skin cancer.
Trading Standards, the body responsible for seizing the illegal creams and prosecuting retailers who break the law, admitted "it's a really big problem" and that more could be done to halt the issue. On-the-spot fines and clearer sentencing guidelines could improve the rate of prosecution and the number of product seizures and accusations across the UK, said Trading Standards officer Cenred Elworthy.
He revealed that, at present, "no-one has actually served jail time for selling them", and cited a 40% cut in resources over the last decade as having left the body struggling to get a handle on the issue.