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A recent study conducted by researchers working at the Medicines and Consumer Safety division of the Scientific Institute of Public Health and the Department of Toxicology and The Dermato-Cosmetology and Centre for Pharmaceutical Research in Brussels, Belgium, entitled “In vitro Dermal Absorption of Hydroquinone: Protocol Validation and Applicability on Illegal Skin-Whitening Cosmetics”, which was published in the Journal of Skin Pharmacology and Physiology in 2016, has highlighted the serious dangers of hydroquinone penetrating the blood stream by skin absorption with a cumulative toxic effect with daily applications.

Hydroquinone is classified as a drug and is banned for the use in cosmetic products in Europe and in many countries such as Japan, Australia and several African states. Nevertheless, it is still too often found in formulations of depigmenting creams sold online all over the world. The main reason being, that sale of such creams represents a multi-billion dollar market. Sadly although HQ does depigment the skin, this ingredient poses a serious public health risk.

Hydroquinone (HQ) is a substance which is naturally present in plants and foods such as coffee, cranberries, and blueberries for example, and which isn’t dangerous to consume when ingested occasionally and in small quantities with the foods we eat. However, HQ has been traditionally used as a cosmetic ingredient for skin lightening purposes for decades before being brought into question due to its potentially dangerous risks to human health from over use.

Part of the continued popularity of hydroquinone is that despite the threat of the American FDA in 2005 to place an outright ban on its use in cosmetics, thanks to heavy industry lobbying and pressure, hydroquinone still remains freely available in the US, without prescription and in creams sold over the internet, at concentrations up to 2 percent. For higher concentrations, a prescription is still needed in the US and HQ is solely available on prescription elsewhere in the world. Nevertheless the hard fact is that more recent studies show the highly dangerous nature for cosmetic consumers of hydroquinone. The European Chemical agency classifies Hydroquinone as CMR, Carcinogenic, Mutagenic, Reprotoxic. While International organizations such as the World health Organization (WHO) for example, have been highlighting and dealing with the problem of Hydroquinone over use for many years. (1)

A revealing study

In the Belgian study researchers set out to measure the level of absorption of Hydroquinone into the dermis, hence into the blood stream and its toxicity when applied topically in different forms, e.g. lotions, creams and on different skin types. Testing research hypotheses on human tissue is extremely rare due to ethical and legal reasons in Europe. However, this exceptionally, a human skin test protocol was authorized and this protocol was used to determine the dermal absorption, of 12  skin-whitening cosmetics containing hydroquinone, based on the Franz diffusion cells (FDC) test. The results obtained were equivalent to a multi-centre validation study.

When considering the results, the dermal absorption of HQ ranged between 31% and 44%. According to the researchers, all the samples irrespective of their concentrations gave high dermal absorption values, rendering them all unsafe for human health. And their results add to the already-existing knowledge of illegal cosmetics on the EU market: they concluded that such cosmetics show a detrimental toxicological profile and “are likely to induce health problems”. (2)

The scientists also concluded that “The present study results highlight that even when these cosmetics contain small amounts of HQ, the overall risks associated with them are high […].”(3) All of the creams tested failed the NOAEL test (the level of exposure at which there is no biologically or statistically significant increase in the frequency or severity of any adverse effects). Finally because pigmentation disorders are a chronic problem which requires daily long term use of creams, the risk of cumulative exposure and undesired complications is high.

Raising awareness with users and the general public

But it is not only scientists who are concerned about the dangers of HQ: non-profit organizations are also active in denouncing the dangerousness of HQ. The Label Beauté Noire, a French non-profit association founded by Mrs. Mananga Ossey carries out information and prevention work in the field with consumers of multicultural cosmetic products (for skin and hair), works relentlessly to alert public opinion and health authorities on the consequences of dangerous skin lightening practices, while offering support to the victims of these practices.

As the Label Beauté Noire founder points out, the non-profit organization has three main missions: first to inform consumers, in particular through preventative actions carried out in collaboration with doctors, skin dermatologists, pharmacists and psychologists, then to promote quality multicultural cosmetic products, by working with cosmetics market players, and lastly to alert public opinion through mainstream media.

The non-profit association is at the origin of the first institutional campaigns for the prevention and education of populations on the issues of the risks of skin lightening (voluntary depigmentation), and has also struggled for the official recognition of these issues as public health problems in France. With its activities, Label Beauté Noire  is now a reference body for many institutions such as the French Agence nationale de sécurité du medicament (ANSM) , whose main task is to assess the health risks posed by medicinal products and health products intended for human use, the Direction Générale de la Concurrence, de la Consommation et de la Répression des Fraudes (DGCCRF) the French public administration which protects consumers by overseeing consumption and acting for fraud prevention and control, and also the World health Organization (WHO). (4)

In 2017 alone the French DGCCRF analysed 51 products that confirmed what official reports had already described: the most frequent controversial and non- declared molecule found in the products tested was HQ. This substance is toxic to melanocytes, the cells that pigment the skin. (5) What is misleading for consumers is the fact that HQ as a substance did not appear in the ingredient lists. This allows their manufacturers and complicit distribution networks to sell these stocks while escaping the authorities’ oversight and controls.

Mrs. Mananga Ossey via her association Label Beauté Noire, has been pushing for the implementation of a specific quality label to encourage laboratories to develop safer skin whitening and hair straightening products products for consumers. The concept being that brands which obtain the Label Beauté Noire label will adhere to a stringent quality controls, identical in principle to those governing organic products. As part of this label, products are subject to independent laboratory spot check controls.

As the latest scientific research and the fight that Mrs. Mananga Ossey has been waging via her association, it is imperative to raise awareness among the public with users of depigmenting creams that not all skin lightening creams are made equal, and that some, can cause serious health problems if used over extended periods of time. In short, “The ends doesn’t justify the means”.

NUNII LABORATOIRE’S ethos since its very foundations has been to publically commit to avoiding the use of controversial and toxic ingredients such as HQ. Instead NUNII invests in fundamental research to discover and offer safer alternative solutions that are marketed through licensed dermatologists, in a bid to offer peace-of-mind to patients wishing to perform depigmenting treatments. Should you have any questions regarding such treatments, the NUNII team will be happy to answer all your questions and inform you the skin lightening treatment options available for your skin type.

References: 

(1) “Hydroquinone health and Safety Guide #101”, World Health Organization, 1996

https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/38140/924151101X-eng.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

(2), (3) “In vitro Dermal Absorption of Hydroquinone: protocol Validation and Applicability on Illegal Skin-Whitening Cosmetics”: By Desmedt B., Ates G., Courselle P., De Beer J.O., Rogiers V., Hendrickx B., Deconinck, E., and De PeaepeK., Skin Pharmacology and Physiology: 2016; 29: PP 300-308.

Division of Food, Medicines and Consumer Safety, Section Medicinal Products, Scientific Institute of Public Health (IPH) /  Department of Toxicology, Dermato-Cosmetology and Pharmacognosy, Centre for Pharmaceutical Research (CePhar), Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) /  Department Plastische Heelkunde, Universitair Ziekenhuis Brussel, Brussels, Belgium.

https://www.karger.com/Article/Fulltext/454719, https://doi.org/10.1159/000454719

(4), (5) https://labelbeautenoire.org/a-propos/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No-observed-adverse-effect_level

Photographie : (c) Shutterstock DUANGJAN J