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Illegal skin-whitening creams continue to be sold in UK

PICTURED: Funbeaut-A is was sold to undercover BBC reporters in a shop in Manchester. It contains hydroquinone, which cannot be sold over-the-counter in the UK (Photo credit: BBC)

A BBC Stories investigation has revealed that high-street shops previously prosecuted for selling illegal skin-whitening creams in the UK are continuing to sell the banned products.

BBC undercover journalists visited seventeen shops across London, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester over a six-month period to see how many illegal products were for sale, with six of the shops having been previously prosecuted for selling illegal skin-whitening creams.

In total they tested twenty one products, fourteen of those products were found to contain illegal substances and of the previously prosecuted shops, four out of the six resold illegal products.

In Manchester, a FOI by the BBC revealed only one shop owner had been prosecuted in 2017-2018 for selling the illegal products, despite BBC researchers finding illegal skin-whitening products in multiple other shops in the city.

Trading Standards Officer, Cenred Elworthy, told the BBC in an interview that, “It’s a really big problem” and that they “could do more” to regulate the industry.

Despite the damaging effects of the creams, he went on to tell the BBC there is “no central collection of data” on the number of prosecutions, seizures or accusations across the country, resulting in a lack of understanding about the scale of the issue.

PRESENTERS: Arlene Dihoulou and Mariam Orotund

Mr Elworthy said that he felt a lack of resources made it easier for traders to sell the banned product as the number of Trading Standard Officers for a single London borough alone may be just two or three, and “those officers cover about 150 different bits of legislation, included within that is cosmetics”.

He added, “I think it could, for me personally, it could be a full time job. I think you could probably have a team of about 50, 60 within London trying to tackle this.”

Mr Elworthy told the BBC that some traders do stop selling the products after being prosecuted, but he claimed “secondary offenders are often not selling things that are blatantly obviously full of illegal products”.

He admitted, “no one has actually served jail time for selling them”, despite being caught still selling the illegal products whilst serving a suspended sentence.

He suggested the industry could be better regulated through “on the spot fines” for businesses selling the illegal skin-whitening products and clearer sentencing guidelines.

Trading Standards are responsible for seizing banned skin whitening creams and prosecuting businesses selling them. However, after the BBC's investigation, it appears prosecuted shops are undeterred by these fines and are continuing to sell the illegal products.


Meg Chucks was fined £1,400, with £1,040 costs, in October 2017 for selling illegal skin-whitening creams in her Moston Store in Greater Manchester, TM Cosmetics. Fifty one products in her store were discovered to contain the illegal ingredient hydroquinone.

Before this prosecution, Chucks had been previously warned by Trading Standards for importing similar types of products via Manchester Airport.

But, despite this warning and fine, BBC Stories have recent undercover footage of her still selling a skin-whitening cream containing Hydroquinone.

Chucks admitted to our undercover researcher that she used the product herself and later claimed she did not know it was illegal and denied selling illegal products, despite hydroquinone being listed as an ingredient on the box. When asked for a receipt, Ms. Chucks refused to provide one.

When tested the product, Funbeaut-A, was found to contain 3% hydroquinone. Manufactured in Nigeria, this is more than the strongest medicine containing hydroquinone licensed for prescription for medical purposes by a UK doctor.

The full investigation will be available to watch on BBC iPlayer from Tuesday 7 August via the ‘Documentaries’ tab.

Original reporting by BBC Stories

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