Last month, Japanese cosmetics maker Kanebo and its affiliates Lissage and E'quipe recalled 54 skin-whitening products from Japan and other Asian markets such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan.
The voluntary recall was initiated when some consumers in Japan reported the appearance of white blotches on their skin after using skin-whitening formulas that contained Rhododenol, a synthetic version of a natural compound extracted from white birch bark, made and patented by Kanebo.
As of July 19, 6,808 such reports had been made in Japan. More than 2,200 people out of that group reported white patches on their skin. The rest are suspected or "insignificant" cases, says Kanebo's spokesman in Singapore.
The formulas in question were found across eight brands: Blanchir Superior, Suisai, Twany, Impress IC & Granmula, Aqualeaf, Lissage, RMK and Suqqu.
Of the 54 products recalled, 17 had been sold in Singapore but have been taken off the shelves since July 4. They were Kanebo's Blanchir Superior and Impress IC & Granmula ranges, and RMK's Skin Tuner Brightening products.
While more than 250 customers here have gone to Kanebo's local head office for product exchanges since reports on the case were published, there have been no confirmed local reports of customer complaints linked to Rhododenol. But the brand is attending to a consumer, through a dermatologist, with suspected skin irregularities.
The products in question had been sold in Singapore since December 2010.
Kanebo's spokesman declined to share the percentage drop in the sales of its other whitening products, except to say "it has slowed down". There are no details on when the affected products will be reformulated.
According to Women's Wear Daily, Japanese conglomerate Kao Group (which Kanebo became part of in 2006) said costs related to the recall totalled 8.4 billion yen (S$109 million).
The affected products are not sold in Europe and the United States.
The local sales of whitening products from other brands, such as Shiseido, Shu Uemura and Kiehl's, have not been affected, say their spokesmen.
The incident was a surprise to many, as the ingredient in question had been approved in 2008 by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare in Japan.
According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Kanebo said the ingredient development process had taken eight years and it was tested on 1,000 women over a three-year trial period.
But Dr Alain Khaiat, a scientist and president of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association of Singapore, tells Urban that while companies "do a lot of serious testing to ensure the safety of the products placed on the market, there are differences in the way individuals react to the same product.
"The skin is a complex organ," he says.
"The incident is unfortunate as, I am sure, Kanebo went through a lot of testing."
Dr Chan Yuin Chew, a dermatologist at Dermatology Associates at Gleneagles Medical Centre, adds that such tests are done on a relatively small number of healthy people for a limited period of time.
"Problems may arise in the general population, which consists of a much larger number of people with varying health conditions, after long-term use."
Most skin-whitening products work by regulating or inhibiting melanin production to give users a clearer, more even skin tone. Some also break up existing melanin pigment clusters, which cause dark spots, to lighten them.
Doctors say whitening ingredients are not necessarily harsher than those found in other kinds of beauty ingredients, such as those which treat acne and ageing.
Established brands such as Shiseido, for example, say they test new ingredients rigorously.
Shiseido, one of the pioneers of whitening in Japan, developed five out of the 20 active whitening ingredients approved by the Japanese government. Whitening products make up 30 per cent of its total sales revenue here.
A BOOMING MARKET
Facial-whitening skincare products are big business in Asia.
Mr Kelvin Chan, head of country research at market research firm Euromonitor International notes that last year, skin-whitening product sales in Asia reached more than
US$10 billion (S$12.7 billion), accounting for around 26 per cent of facial skincare sales, excluding acne treatments. This represents a significant growth from 2008 when sales stood at US$7.2 billion, he adds.
Over the same period, the growth of whitening facial skincare products outpaced the non-whitening ones.
Dr Chan feels that what happened to Kanebo and its affiliates was a case of the perfect storm: "Whitening is a top beauty trend; Kanebo is a large and well-known cosmetics company with a huge customer base; the reaction took some time to develop; and the company took some time to do a product recall."
The WSJ reported that Kanebo was notified of the possibility of a link between its whitening products and some patients' blotchy skin in May, but the product recall was done only in July.
THE RISKS OF WHITENING
Dr Steven Thng, senior consultant and head of the Pigment Clinic at the National Skin Centre, says that many whitening agents have the potential to cause skin irritation or allergic reactions.
Such agents include retinol or Retin-A. "If applied in the day and the skin is exposed to the sun, the skin might end up becoming itchy, red and tight," he says. Hydroquinone can also cause a skin-darkening condition known as ochronosis. Whitening treatments such as fruit acid peels can lead to skin irritation and redness.
The worst cases of contact dermatitis (a skin reaction) caused by whitening products that Dr Chan has seen are itchy, red and swollen rashes. "These rashes sometimes cause skin discolouration that take weeks to resolve."
As a precaution, always see a doctor to determine the cause of pigmentation and treat it accordingly based on your skin type, says Dr Patricia Yuen, a dermatologist at the Pacific Healthcare Specialist Centre in Paragon.
"If you have a history of skin sensitivity, the doctor can prescribe a combination of lightening agents that are less irritating, such as vitamin C, mulberry or liqorice extract," she says.
If you insist on over-the-counter formulas, go for the tried-and-tested ones, says Dr Chan. "Never be the first to try a new skincare product. Word-of-mouth recommendations by relatives and friends are helpful."
Also, make it a habit to test a small amount of the product on your skin over a few days before slathering it over your entire face, says Dr Thng. Try the product on an inconspicuous corner of your jawline. Only use the formula on your face if there is no reaction on the test area after three days. If there is any irritation, rinse off the product immediately and see a doctor.
Always follow instructions when using skincare products, and be patient.
Dr Chan notes that while most women are diligent about following the manual, "there will always be some who will apply more than the amount instructed in order to look fairer in the shortest time possible, preferably by yesterday."
Apply more than needed and you may risk getting a skin reaction.
Today, there is hardly a beauty brand stocked here which does not have a dedicated whitening line. To go one-up on the competition, most brands offer new formulas every year. As fair skin has traditionally been associated with youthfulness and beauty, especially in Asia, Dr Khaiat does not think the Kanebo incident will impact the industry here too much.
"Consumers will always want to look younger, slightly lighter in colour, and have a more even skin tone.
"And they do have a large choice of products that have a proven safety record."
Indeed, Ms Zhou Aiyi, a 29-year-old make-up artist, thinks the incident is a "one-off and not a big deal".
"I will continue to use my whitening facial wash, serum and masks regularly unless there are more reports of such incidents from other brands besides Kanebo."
However, other consumers, such as bank executive Sabrina Tan, are now more wary of whitening beauty products. The 32-year-old uses a skin-whitening serum every day.
"I intend to stop using whitening products once I am done with my current bottle, and switch to naturally formulated ones.
"I'll definitely be more careful when choosing skincare products. I'll spend more time online researching skincare formulas before buying them."
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 2, 2013.
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