From allegations about mercury-laden skin lightening creams in the Philippines to new draft guidelines in India about advertising such products in a non-discriminatory manner, recent weeks have brought continuing headline stories in the media concerning these popular products.

According to one news source, the Japanese cosmetics company Kanebo has apparently begun providing interim payments to 4,000 people who complained that the “Rhododenol” in its whitening creams caused their skin blotches and discoloration. The company had been criticized for delaying compensation, but a spokeswoman reportedly said that Kanebo was already paying medical expenses for those affected and will provide initial compensation for damages and any leave taken for treatment. She said, “In the past we said we will pay compensation and leave expenses when patients fully recuperate, but we have now decided to make interim payments if these customers wish.” Some 15,000 complaints have been made by users in Japan of 54 products containing the chemical. See AgenceFrancePresse, June 20, 2014.

The Advertising Standards Council of India (AS CI), meanwhile, has issued draft guidelines for advertising skin lightening products. According to the preamble, “[T]here is a strong concern in certain sections of society that advertising of fairness products tends to communicate and perpetuate the notion that dark skin is inferior and undesirable.” Thus AS CI proposes that advertising for these products should not (i) “communicate any discrimination as a result of skin colour”; (ii) “use post production visual effects on the model/s to show exaggerated product efficacy”; (iii) “associate darker or lighter colour skin with any particular socio-economic strata, caste, community, religion, profession or ethnicity”; or (iv) “perpetuate gender based discrimination because of skin colour.” AS CI has requested comments on the draft guidance from stakeholders.

The Malaysia Health Ministry has warned consumers to avoid buying and using two cosmetic products from Ireland because they apparently contain hydroquinone and tretinoin. The ministry states that while cosmetic products “adulterated with hydroquinone” are typically marketed to lighten skin and to treat blemishes and uneven skin tone, this chemical “can cause skin redness, discomfort, skin discoloration, hypersensitivity and a gradual blue-black darkening of the skin.” Cosmetics “adulterated with tretinoin are commonly promoted for use in acne and to reduce wrinkles,” but, the ministry said, preparations with this chemical should be used under the supervision of a health-care professional because unsupervised usage “can cause redness to the skin, discomfort, stinging, peeling and sensitivity to lights.” See Malaysia Ministry of Health Press Release, June 13, 2014.

A public interest coalition in the Philippines has reportedly questioned whether Cebu City has become “the toxic whitening cosmetics capital of the Philippines.” According to the EcoWaste Coalition, unapproved skin lightening creams containing mercury have been found openly displayed and sold in city markets. The group has urged city government to take immediate action to stop the sale of these and other cosmetics and personal care products that have not been approved. Of 13 products tested, the coalition reportedly found that 11 contained elevated levels of mercury, ranging from 3,218 parts per million (ppm) to 13,900 ppm, far exceeding the ASEAN threshold limit of 1 ppm for mercury in cosmetics. See EcoWaste Coalition Blog, June 18, 2014.