Materia Medica Malaysiana

October 26, 2008

The dark side of skin whitening products

Filed under: Uncategorized — malaysianmedicine @ 9:09 am

NST: The Health Ministry has taken 26 cosmetic products containing banned substances off the shelves in the last two years. Do you know what those products are? Do you also know that some of them are still being sold openly? New Sunday Times reporters went a hunting.
THE plot was set — to search for the perfect skin whitening product. The only difference was all the products earmarked for the search were banned ones.
But some of them were blatantly sitting on the shelves, waiting for the next unsuspecting victim to come by.
The hunt, which spanned six shops and utilised the reporters’ winning portrayals of desperate vain pots — yielded a bagful of products that could make you fair very fast.
How fast, you ask?
If you are willing to spend the ringgit, all you need is three days. These products are priced from as low as RM10 (works a bit slower) to a few hundred ringgit a set.
But what is wrong with them?
Nothing, if the product does not contain any ingredients such as hydroquinone, retinoic acid/tretinoin or steroids, which are banned in cosmetics.
The Health Ministry has, in the last three years, banned 26 cosmetic products for containing such ingredients.
Despite the ban, two creams are still being advertised on its distributor’s website, alongside the agents’ phone numbers.
The New Sunday Times team managed to buy the creams at a shopping complex.
The traders had no qualms about revealing that some “immediate effect” products did contain hydroquinone, although the labels did not state so.
“Produk ini memang cepat dan bestseller. Sebab ia ada bahan kimia hydroquinone. Tapi jangan risau, ia selamat. (This best-selling product works very fast because it has the hydroquinone chemical. But don’t worry, it’s safe),” one said.
What’s more worrying is that some of the banned products have now been repackaged and renamed, but according to the traders, were essentially the same.
“Barangnya sama sahaja, cuma ada masalah dulu. Jadi sekarang dah tukar nama. (It’s the same product. There were some problems earlier, so they changed the name).”
The National Pharmaceutical Control Bureau said consumers should be aware that hydroquinone and retinoic acid/tretinoin were scheduled poisons that were regulated as pharmaceuticals.
It is only allowed to be used under medical supervision and only supplied by doctors or pharmacies.
“Unsupervised use of hydroquinone could cause skin redness, irritation and discolouration.
“Excessive amounts of hydroquinone, when absorbed into blood circulation, could cause ringing in the ears, tremors, nervousness, vomiting, head-aches, seizures, muscle spasms and difficulty in breathing,” the bureau added.
All this in the quest for that Asian obsession, fair skin.
From foreigners hawking whitening soaps, gels and creams by roadsides at every nook and corner of the bustling city, to booths in shopping establishments being crammed with similar products, it seems that fair skin is in vogue.
Adding to this is a multitude of advertisements drumming in the message for the need to be fair-skinned.
It is none too surprising then that a New York Times report in 2006 quoted a survey by market research company Synovate, saying that four out of every 10 Malaysian women use a whitening product.
The report also explained how whitening products work.
Some contain acids that remove old skin to reveal newer, lighter skin underneath.
Others inhibit melanin, like those with mulberry extract, licorice extract, kojic acid, arbutin and hydroquinone, an ingredient in prescription creams for blemishes as well as in photo processing materials.
The report also stated: “Some of the most effective agents are also risky and are often the least expensive, like mercury-based ingredients or hydroquinone, which in Thailand sells for about US$20 (RM70) per kilogramme, compared with highly concentrated licorice extract, which sells for about US$20,000 per kilogramme.”
It makes one wonder what’s really in the RM10 whitening cream.

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