Are your whitening products safe?

NST 26 Oct 2008: Local News > The dark side of skin whitening products

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 abels 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.

NST Being Snow White can be dangerous

DREAMING of having Snow White’s complexion? Be careful what you wish for, as you may be getting more than what you bargained for.
Irreversible damage to your skin is what you are courting if you use whitening products that contain illegal substances.

Skin specialists warn that long-term use of hydroquinone, one of the banned substances for cosmetic products, strips the skin of melanin — its natural pigment.

“It can cause permanent damage to cells that produce pigmentation in your skin,” said dermatologist Datuk Dr Low Bin Tick.

This puts one at risk of skin cancer because there is no more melanin to filter the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.
The website lists hydroquinone as “a possible carcinogen and probable neurotoxin and skin sensitiser”.

The website hosts the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, dedicated to protecting consumers by requiring the health and beauty industry to phase out the use of chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems.

The campaign is made up of a coalition of women’s, public health, labour, environmental health and consumer rights groups in the United States.

Dermatologist Datuk Dr Sushil Kumar Ratti said two things could happen when one uses a bleaching product on the face without a doctor’s supervision.

First is irritant dermatitis, or an allergic dermatitis, which is a form of rash that feels like a burning or stinging sensation on the skin or scaly skin.

“If the skin is very scaly and peels excessively, this is cause for alarm and you should consult your dermatologist.”

The second effect, according to Dr Sushil was de-pigmentation of the skin.

“This is when pigment is over-removed. When you use the product on a pigmented area, you might get de-pigmentation of the surrounding area.”

Another long-term effect, said Dr Sushil, was ochronosis, where the skin becomes really dark instead of white.

Some women, said Dr Low, resorted to hydroquinone to rid their faces of dark spots, but unsupervised usage could cause a contrast in skin tones.

This is “cosmetically even less acceptable than pigmentation”.

I couldn’t find the Banned list from, so here’s the scanned version:
NST - 26 Banned Cosmetics 261008
NST – 26 Banned cosmetics

Cellnique’s Whitening product in the list! Biro Pengawalan Farmaseutikal Kebangsaan (National Pharmaceutical Control Bureau)

6 thoughts on “Are your whitening products safe?

  1. Any links to why retinoic acid/tretinoin is bad? I’ve started using Retin-A about a month ago when I read somewhere that it can renew my skin effectively (for scars, pimples/acne, pigmentation, open pores) and the article mentioned how good and effective it is and I even ask the pharmacist at the counter if there are any side effects and he said it is very effective and there are many return customer for Retin-A….any links to further confirm this?

  2. I agree with the post. I’m currently using this skin lightener called DermaBright by Rosa Skincare for skin lightening. It’s really helped lighten my overall complexion and has lightened hyperpigmentation, skin discoloration, and evened out my skin tone. I really recommend it. If you need more information, the website is



  3. yup yup. retinoin is not that good actually. but when acne got into a real serious state, retinoin is the onli one can help.
    retinoin is for skin renewal, however, it is not encourage to use that often especially during the day, there are cases where people using retinoin during the day, without using a sunblock, it will like become rashes on the skin as retinoin makes the skin more sensitive.
    if ure having an acne problem, just a mild one, maybe u could try something like clindamycin? which is an antibacterial?

    and hehe, u have to really take care of ur skin by then. if ure using retinoin for acne, then ur skin might have uneven skin tone due to the whitening/anti acne effect of the retinoin. so there will be patches of fairer complexion.

    anyway, i think they banned it because it is under the poison act. and putting them into some usual skin care product has actually break the poison act (as they are over the counter and not required any prescription from the doctor or advice from pharmacist) there must be a toxic level dose that causes complications.
    u can get it from the pharmacy, as the pharmacy is only selling the highest concentration 1%.
    but that we dont know the products banned, how much retinoin they contain. if its higher, it might be really dangerous.


    just my thoughts.
    so i guess those who are using for acne, can continue using it as its the pharmacist’s advice.

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