The City Council's Trading Standards Service is warning the public about the dangers associated with the supply of illegal skin lightening creams. This webpage deals with some frequently asked questions about fade creams, skin toners, bleaching and whitening agents and aims to inform businesses and consumers alike what the response to this important issue continues to be.

Who Uses them?

Such products are usually marketed towards females from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. In Newcastle the primary users are likely to be Afro Caribbean women. Some creams are also now being marketed towards men.

Why do they want to use them?

Different consumers will have different reasons. Sometimes it may be used to try and deal with localised blemishes but often an overall lighter appearance is the one desired by the consumer. This personal desire is often driven by complex social, cultural and historical factors.

Why are some types of these products banned?

Because they contain ingredients that have been proven to be harmful to health and cause permanent skin damage.

What are the ingredients that are harmful? 

Hydroquinone used to be the most common ingredient. It is now banned for use in many countries around the world including the UK and the other EU states. 

Ammoniated mercury has also been found in some of these products. Mercury is also banned from use in many cosmetics as it is so toxic. Antiseptic soaps have also been found to contain mercury in the form of mercuric iodide.

Steroids such as clobetasol propionate and fluocinonide are also frequently found in some of these type of products. There are legitimate medicinal uses for such steroids but due to the potentially harmful side effects that they have, their use should be strictly controlled by a doctor or a pharmacist. In the UK any product containing these steroids must be licensed or should only be available on prescription, they should never be on sale in cosmetics shops.

What are the harmful effects of using these?


Hydroquinone inhibits production of the pigment melanin which gives skin its colour. However melanin is vital to protect the skin against UV radiation so your body will over compensate by producing more melanin.

This results in a darker patchier appearance developing

  • It damages the elastin strands in skin causes premature aging and weakening of the skin
  • It can cause neuropathy, a disease of the nervous system
  • It can damage your liver
  • It increases the risk of the development of skin cancer from UV radiation


This toxic element accumulates in the body and damages the kidneys, liver and brain causing a host of serious and potentially fatal health problems.

Tropical corticosteroids

  • Misuse will cause skin thinning, stretch marks, bruising and broken veins
  • Eczema could flare up
  • There is an increased risk of infection, sores and boils
  • Prolonged use will affect the release of hormones that control and stabilise vital functions with very serious or life threatening consequences

Why are these products still manufactured if they are so dangerous?

Some countries have not banned hydroquinone or mercury in skin lighteners so it is legal to manufacture and supply them in these countries.

Steroid based creams can be supplied in the UK on prescription as they have legitimate medicinal uses, however they require a product licence and should not be found in cosmetic products.

What should I do if I have been using these products?

Stop using them immediately. Consult your doctor if you are concerned about any skin damage or health problems. 

Who enforces the law on these products?

Every local authority including Newcastle City Council has a Trading Standards Service which enforces consumer protection legislation such as the regulations which apply to cosmetics. Go to our Cosmetic Product Enforcement Regulations 2013 webpage.

Where steroid based creams are found the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will be responsible as these products are classed as medicines. 

The City Council's Trading Standards Service will respond to all complaints and intelligence that we receive on any unsafe consumer products which does include illegal cosmetic products. Officers can seize illegal products. Go to our Enforcement Policy webpage.

What are the penalities for selling these illegal skin lighteners?

Any person found guilty of trading in these type of illegal cosmetic products could indeed be fined and sent to prison. Any illegal products so identified can also be seized by Trading Standards and/or the MHRA.   

Why are shops still selling them?

The City Council's Trading Standards Service is doing its best to ensure that they are not. It is often simply a case of the businesses not checking that the stock they receive is legal. However, whilst there is a demand for these products some unscrupulous traders may sell it under the counter to make money, they simply don't care about the health of their customers.

Press Articles

To see an article which sets out the enforcement action the Trading Standards Service will take when we investigate illegal cosmetic products go to the Chronicle of the 4 June 2014 and the Chronicle of the 26 December 2017. To see a report of the 7 August 2018 from the BBC which highlighted this important safety issue go to the BBC. To see a report from the BBC highlighting the conviction of indiividuals involved in this illegal business practice go to the BBC of the 22 August 2018.  

To see an article on the issue go to the Autumn/Winter 2014 edition of our High Standard newsletter (pdf 1.7 mb) 

Copies of the legislation mentioned on this page can be purchased from Her Majesty's Stationery Office or can be accessed on the OPSI website.

This information has no legal force and is not an authoritative interpretation of the law, which is a matter for the Courts. It is intended to assist businesses to understand in general terms, the main features of the legislation. The information is not a substitute for the legislation and you should refer to the text of the Regulations for a full statement of legal requirements and obligations. Where appropriate, you should seek your own independent legal advice.

For further information contact the Trading Standards Service, Directorate of Operations and Regulatory Services, City of Newcastle upon Tyne, Civic Centre, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 8QH.
Phone: 0191 2116121.

Page last updated: 
30 August 2018
Was this page useful?