'Whiter skin in 14 days': Tracking the illegal sale of skin-whitening creams in Canada
Lab tests reveal alarming levels of dangerous, unlisted ingredients in popular products
Some skin-lightening products sold in Canada contain alarming levels of harmful ingredients, including mercury, hydroquinone and steroids, a CBC Marketplace investigation has found.
Health Canada says the sale of these "unauthorized" products is illegal, as they may pose serious health risks.
Marketplace bought the majority of these creams in beauty supply stores across the country — at locations in Toronto, Halifax, Montreal and Vancouver. Some of the sales clerks issued warnings during the shopping trips.
"You can use it all over, but you have to use at your discretion, because it can damage your face and … we [are not] responsible for it," said one salesperson.
"[Customers] love it but it can be very damaging. Very, very damaging," said another.
And other stores made promises of "whitened" skin within two weeks. Or, as one saleswoman said, "in seconds, become white."
WATCH | Marketplace goes undercover to buy skin-lightening products:
Testing the products
After purchasing more than 100 products used for skin lightening or whitening, Marketplace commissioned a laboratory in the U.K. to test more than a dozen of the most popular ones, looking for some common ingredients, including:
Hydroquinone, used to lighten dark spots or uneven skin tone. Health Canada warns concentrations greater than two per cent can cause severe skin issues, such as burning and discolouration. It has also been linked to an increased risk of cancer.
Mercury, sometimes added to stop the production of melanin, or pigment, is a heavy metal that can pose serious health risks. In addition to skin rashes and scarring, adverse side effects can include mercury poisoning, muscle atrophy, kidney damage and neuropathy — a disease of the nervous system.
Topical corticosteroids are highly potent prescription drugs not authorized for sale in Canada without a doctor's prescription. Side effects include skin irritation and, with prolonged use, skin weakening or deterioration, as well as decreased ability to fight infection, symptoms of adrenal gland suppression, or Cushing syndrome.
Toronto dermatologist Dr. Lisa Kellett has seen the damage skin-lightening creams can cause firsthand, treating patients who come into her office with skin issues after using these over-the-counter products.
"The worst I've seen would be infection causing scarring. I've seen ochronosis, which is pigment change," she said, referring to the blue or grey discolouration that can occur after long-term use of hydroquinone.
"I've seen reactions to the product, which looks like a bad form of eczema. I've seen blisters … and some people react so severely that they get inflamed lymph nodes as well, and they require admission to hospital."
Marketplace's testing found most of the products violated Health Canada guidelines, some of which contained dangerous ingredients not listed on the label.
They include Maxi Light, which was found to contain hydroquinone over Health Canada's two per cent limit and a steroid called clobetasol propionate, not listed on the ingredients label.
Clobetasol propionate is a very strong topical steroid used to treat allergic reactions, eczema and psoriasis. It should only be used with a prescription and under a doctor's direction, as misuse or overuse can cause side effects that include burning, scaling or thinning of the skin.
Maxi Light did not respond to Marketplace's repeated requests for comment.
Miss White, a product that claims "Whiter Skin in 14 Days," was found to contain double the amount of hydroquinone allowed — and it's not listed on the label.
The Mitchell Group, the company that distributes Miss White in North America, says it doesn't ship any products containing hydroquinone to Canada and that the Miss White products Marketplace tested were counterfeit.
The company also says its products are intended to treat skin discoloration in many different forms, including dark spots, uneven skin tone and hyperpigmentation. And while the product advertises "Whiter Skin in 14 days," the Mitchell Group says they promote a "black is beautiful" message.
The company's lawyer, Arnold Zweig, also contacted Marketplace, and in a statement, he wrote that his client condemns any form of discrimination and does not condone the use of their products in order for their customers to appear "whiter."
Another cream with labelling issues was Caro White, considered one of the most popular skin-lightening products worldwide. On the label, it was listed as containing two per cent hydroquinone, but lab tests revealed it had over four per cent, more than double what Health Canada allows.
Dream Cosmetics, the Ivory Coast-based company that makes Caro White, said in a statement that it follows regulations and the creams that were tested must have been counterfeit.
Watch: The full Marketplace investigation
16,000 times the level of mercury allowed
Testing results for Goree Beauty Cream, a product Marketplace purchased online, showed an extremely high level of mercury. One sample had more than 16,000 times the amount allowed by Health Canada. It also contained the steroid clobetasol propionate.
"This is very dangerous. Mercury has some carcinogenic effects," said Kellet. "And as well, the steroid; it's too strong for use. It should not be available over the counter."
According to Health Canada's regulations, mercury over 1 part per million (PPM) is not allowed in over-the-counter health and cosmetic products.
In a statement, Goree told Marketplace that it does not add mercury as an ingredient, it does not distribute its products outside of Pakistan, and that the creams tested could be knock-offs.
When Marketplace contacted all the companies that distribute these products, many said their products were not meant to be sold in Canada, and they couldn't explain how they ended up on store shelves here. Some added that their products are not meant to promote a desire for whiter skin; rather, their products are intended to even skin tone.
Many of these skin-lightening products are made in different parts of the world, including Africa, Asia and the United States. A lot of them are sold in Canadian beauty supply stores, including those that cater to African, Asian and Caribbean communities.
Skin-lightening products with hydroquinone can be prescribed by dermatologists to lighten dark spots on the skin, such as age spots, liver spots or freckles. Such use typically consists of spot treatments for a limited period of time under the guidance of a health-care professional.
But with these beauty products readily available on some store shelves, consumers are able to use them all over their faces and bodies daily — and that can cause serious, long-term effects, Kellett said.
She would like to see such over-the-counter products pulled nationwide.
Kellett herself doesn't prescribe hydroquinone on a regular basis. Instead, she uses a combination of what she says are more effective skin-lightening agents that do not cause ochronosis. On the rare occasion when she will prescribe hydroquinone to treat a patient's skin condition, she gives very detailed directions on how to use it.
"The problem is that people are using it incorrectly — they're using it for the wrong purpose," said Kellett. "This whole milieu of having these products available needs to be stopped. These products should not be sold."
For many consumers, the desire for lighter, whiter skin can trump the dangers. Skin lighteners are a growing global business expected to reach more than $31 billion US by 2024.
What's behind the trend? Shadeism, a discrimination or prejudice based on skin tone that equates people with lighter skin as more worthy and more attractive than people with darker skin.
There are hundreds of beauty products that reinforce this negative message.
WATCH | Why this woman says she stopped lightening her skin:
Sabrina Manku, of Brampton, Ont., started lightening her skin at age 10.
"I would look at myself, because I used to have fairly dark skin, and I was like, 'OK, like, maybe if I start using this — which I did — I'd become lighter.'"
Manku used a variety of products and says she became about three to four shades lighter within a few years. She was praised by friends and family for her "brighter" look.
When she started entering beauty pageants as a teenager, Manku believed her lighter skin helped her succeed.
Looking over some of her pageant photos, Manku recently realized that all the contestants were the same shade — something she hadn't noticed before.
Like many consumers Marketplace interviewed, Manku said she bought into the idea of skin lightening because it was practised by others in her family, and that she was also influenced by marketing.
Her favourite cream to use was Fair & Lovely, an extremely popular product in South Asia. The package includes a "fairness meter" that allowed Manku to check if she was achieving her desired shade.
"I would literally test my skin; it's like, OK, now … I got this tone by putting this on," Manku said. "They're setting beauty standards that everyone has to follow, and they're using actresses for it. They're using really good-looking actresses, really light skin actresses."
Calling out the marketing of fairness: Dove vs. Fair & Lovely
Fair & Lovely is owned by Unilever, a multinational company that owns around 400 brands, including Dove.
In recent years, Dove has built its brand around the concept of "real beauty."
One of its latest North American campaigns is about "shattering beauty stereotypes," and it features women of different races, languages, shapes, sizes and abilities. The commercial ends with a statistic that 70 per cent of women still don't feel represented in media and advertising — and that's why Dove is assembling the world's largest stock photo library powered by women around the world.
WATCH | Shoppers react to Unilever's Fair & Lovely ads: 'I call bullshit':
Dove's marketing campaigns are in sharp contrast to those of Fair & Lovely.
In a recent commercial posted online, they use an actress to promote Fair & Lovely. She seemingly goes through a dramatic skin-lightening transformation, talking about the latest innovation to get "best fairness" with laser light and advanced multivitamins, which will brighten "dark skin cells."
In an email to Marketplace, Unilever said it stands behind the marketing of their skin-lightening cream, noting that "even-toned and lighter skin is a common desire among many people across Asia, Africa and Latin America. The origin of Fair & Lovely is designed to meet this need in a safe way."
Unilever also added that it has established strict marketing principles that will not make any association between skin tone and a person's self-worth and achievement.
According to the lab tests commissioned by Marketplace, Fair & Lovely did not contain any potentially harmful ingredients and Unilever said it does not sell the product in Canada.
History of racist advertising
That's not good enough for Amina Mire, an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Carleton University. She said even if some of these products are considered safe, they still carry harmful messages that lighter skin is better than darker skin.
"What if they can come up with skin lightening that's like completely safe? Is that what we want? Just like a homogenized world where everybody looks white?"
Mire has written a book about skin lightening, a practice she traces back to the early 19th century and ads for soap that featured images portraying black people as dirtier than white people.
"Discourse around cleanliness, order, discipline — they were all part of whiteness," she said. "It plays especially into the ways in which colour grades and different shades were awarded with different privileges, or lack of it."
U.K authorities raid stores selling skin-lightening creams
Skin lightening is such a pervasive problem that some countries are cracking down on the industry. South Africa, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia and Europe have banned all over-the-counter products containing any amount of hydroquinone.
Regulators in the U.K., for example, conduct frequent raids of retail stores, confiscating goods that have been deemed illegal. Shop owners have been prosecuted and fined; at least one man has served jail time.
Health Canada, which capped the limit of hydroquinone on store shelves at two per cent last year, said it has been actively inspecting retailers and seizing unauthorized products. One of the most recent seizures involved a beauty shop in the Toronto area this past December.
Health Canada and retailers take action
After Marketplace shared their findings with Health Canada, the regulator issued a new advisory, warning Canadians that the sale of unauthorized skin-whitening products is illegal and using them can pose serious health risks.
"Health Canada has seized several products from retailers and is concerned that similar unauthorized products continue to be sold to Canadians despite their risks. The department strongly encourages Canadians to not use these products and to report to Health Canada if they see the products for sale, so that the department can take appropriate action."
All authorized products for lightening, whitening or bleaching skin must have an eight-digit Drug Identification Number (DIN) or Natural Product Number (NPN). Health Canada's Drug Product Database and Licensed Natural Health Product Database also list which products have been authorized for sale.
Marketplace contacted the retailers to inform them about the harmful and unauthorized products they had for sale. A number of them, including BSW Beauty Supply, Beauty Collection Inc., and Cloré Beauty Supply, agreed to remove almost all of their stock.
Cloré vice-president Clara Kim said she had no idea the products they were selling could be dangerous or counterfeit. The company owns eight stores across Ontario.
"Now that I do know, I do feel totally responsible for it," said Kim. "Since this incident, we're taking this as a lesson to re-evaluate our purchasing decisions and input ways for us to verify if the product is safe for retail and consumers."
In the wake of Marketplace's investigation, Cloré will no longer sell any lightening, whitening or bleaching products, Kim said, because "we now know we can't trust the label."
The company has also put up notices to let customers know that they've removed the products due to safety concerns. If customers want to return a recalled product, they'll get a full refund.
As for Sabrina Manku, she has stopped using skin lighteners. She says she's embracing the skin she's in — and wants others to do the same.
"I feel like I should have been accepting of who I was from the very start," she said. "Every colour is beautiful, every shade is beautiful. … Just step away from all these products, especially the ones that you know nothing about."