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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

UK-based brothers convicted over harmful skin product sales

First jail term handed down in the UK for selling products containing chemicals linked to serious health problems

Skin lightening treatments in Africa are driving the global demand for the beauty treatment. AFP
Skin lightening treatments in Africa are driving the global demand for the beauty treatment. AFP

Two brothers have been convicted in Britain for selling illegal skin lightening cream as they sought to tap into a multi-billion-pound beauty market that carries major potential health problems for consumers.

Sales of skin lightening products have surged in the last decade with cosmetic companies, adverts featuring Bollywood A-listers and the fashion industry all fuelling a message that fairer skin is more desirable than darker tones.

A judge this week jailed a man in Britain for the first time for violating safety rules by selling creams containing a banned ingredient that has been linked to irreversible skin damage, liver and nervous system damage.

Mohammed Iqbal Bharodawala, 45, was jailed for 20 months for selling imported products from his online story Jenny’s Cosmetics. His brother was ordered to carry out community work for his role in the eBay sales operation.

Officials said that illicit sales were widespread. The London council which brought the prosecution has alone taken 20 local cosmetic suppliers to court for supplying dangerous products since 2002.

The illicit operation was uncovered after Bharodawala was stopped by UK border officials in March last year returning from France with 1,430 items of cosmetics containing banned chemicals.

The legal global market for skin lightening products is set to grow to increase to $31.2 billion by 2024, with consumers in Asia, the Middle East and Africa driving demand, according to US-based researchers Global Industry Analysts. Demand for the products from men is also expected to fuel growth.

“Those big companies that make these products, like L'Oreal, Garnier and Unilever and some of the big Chinese and North American corporations, have literally found a way to cash in on global racism and they are doing it really successfully,” said Cardiff University’s Dr Steve Garner, who investigated the use of the creams in the UK. “They are just really good at convincing women that they are not complete until they look a bit paler.”

His research suggested that most people who used the products began using them started at 16-24 with entry level products costing as little as £1.25.

Creams containing ingredients such as hydroquinone and mercury are banned or restricted in countries including the UAE, South Africa, Japan and across the EU. There is no ban in India where adverts featuring well-known stars are ubiquitous.

Bollywood actress Nandita Das gave her support to campaign Dark is Beautiful, criticising her industry and the Indian media for promoting fair skin as an ideal.

“Indians are very racist,” she told The Guardian in 2013. “It's deeply ingrained. But there is so much pressure by peer groups, magazines, billboards and TV adverts that perpetuate this idea that fair is the ideal.”

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Researchers said the history of colonialism, class and caste-based prejudices in Asia and Africa had contributed to the potency of the cosmetic industry’s message. Key influencers on social media promoting a lighter-skin look had contributed to the pressure on women to lighten their skin colour.

The move has led to a backlash from campaigners seeking to celebrate dark skin. A campaign - #UnfairAndLovely – launched in 2016 by US student Pax Jones encouraged dark-skinned women to share photos on social media.

“I believe the real danger is social media influencers for encouraging skin lightening and convincing people that darker skin colour is for some reason less desirable,” said London-based cosmetic doctor David Jack.

Cosmetic surgeon Dr Jonquille Chantrey told The National that illegal products had resulted in potentially dangerous side effects including skin peeling allergies.

“The most serious risk of all with uncontrolled hydroquinone use is a condition that … creates an irreversible blackening to the skin.”