Report from a Southwark Trading Standards officer
Paul Gander is Trading Standards Team Leader at London Borough of Southwark. Paul has been a trading standards officer in Southwark, South East London, for 27 years. He has developed specialist knowledge of enforcement issues around the supply of illegal skin lightening products since hydroquinone was banned in cosmetics in 2001. Paul recently featured on a BBC exposè of the illegal market in London and has worked with partner agencies such as the MHRA and London Trading Standards on enforcement campaigns.
Keeping Southwark’s high streets free of harmful products is a major part of my role as a member of Southwark Council’s Trading Standard’s team.
Over the years, like many other London Boroughs, we’ve seen a worrying number of cases coming through involving irresponsible retailers selling skin lightening creams containing hydroquinone and corticosteroid based products, both banned for their serious health risks.
Earlier this year we had three cases involving local retailers based in Peckham who despite numerous warnings and advice on product safety from officers, continued to sell harmful skin lightening products.
Our inspections resulted in the seizure of thousands of products that were clearly labelled with all the banned substances we had been advising them about. Some were on the shelves and some were hidden in stock rooms. Most worryingly, the steroid based products should only be available on prescription for certain skin conditions. They are intended for short term use under medical supervision and should not be on sale to the general public. However due to their skin lightening properties they are ending up in unscrupulous cosmetic shops.
The shop owners tell us people ‘ask for the stuff all the time’ - so they are reluctant to say no. They say that the customer will most likely buy other items too so they don’t want to lose that business to a rival.
Early indications are it did have an impact. We sent our mystery shopper out to six shops and just one was prepared to sell (and not one we had prosecuted). This is down from nine sales out of 17 tested last year.
Interestingly, this time the stock was fetched from outside the premises, meaning the business is being extra careful not to get caught with any stock inside - but ultimately this will make them look even worse in court.
We will now go to the courts and seek an authorisation to carry out surveillance as ideally we want to find out where they are keeping their stockpile. Trading Standards have a duty to enforce the law and are on the frontline of ensuring only safe cosmetics are sold - but our job would be a lot easier if the demand issue was tackled.
Clearly there is a need for better campaigning and consumer awareness. I would urge users to consider the very real and potent dangers that prolonged use of these illegal products pose and remind them the regulations are there for good reason.
We need to see all corners of society, from community leaders to healthcare professionals, speaking out about the often life changing results of long term use and tackling the difficult question of why some people will go to such dangerous lengths to change their skin colour.
In the meantime, as a council we will do our best to make sure local retailers and online sellers are not putting their customers at risk.
Southwark has been one of the most proactive enforcement authorities in the UK since hydroquinone was banned in 2001. To date, over 33 defendants have been fined anywhere between £5,000 and £72,000 each in cases we have instigated.