HC Deb 28 June 1988 vol 136 c203W
Mr. Madden

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Services what evidence has been submitted on the damage to health caused by the use of skin-lightening soaps and creams sold in the United Kingdom or exported by British companies abroad.

Mrs. Currie

I assume the hon. Member is referring to soaps and creams containing either mercury salts or hydroquinone. No evidence has been submitted on the damage to health from the use of these products. However, the chronic and acute health effects from inorganic mercury which can be absorbed through the skin is well documented in the scientific literature. This includes evidence of harm in children in the 1950s when mercury was using in teething powders, dusting powders and ointments. Severe kidney damage and effects on the central nervous system have been reported in humans and experimental animals, and reproductive effects in the latter.

Hydroquinone has been shown to produce skin irritation, particularly at concentrations above 2 per cent. It has low acute toxicity, and has not given any evidence of carcinogenicity in animal studies.

Both these products are controlled by EC cosmetics directives implemented in the United Kingdom by the Cosmetics Products (Safety) Regulations 1984. The sale of soaps and creams containing mercury is prohibited. Creams for use in lightening discrete areas of the skin many be sold containing up to 2 per cent. hydroquinone. The packaging must contain the following warnings: Not to be used by children under 12 years old, avoid eye contact, apply to small areas only, stop using if irritation occurs.

Also, the presence of hydroquinone must be stated.

The EC does not at present control export of cosmetics containing mercury to non-EC countries. However, a prohibition order under the Consumer Protection Act 1987 was served by the Department of Trade and Industry on a company in the United Kingdom which was exporting mercury soaps.