PORCELAIN white skin is now available off the shelves. Some are ointments, others are capsules, while some are administered intravenously or injected by a “medical practitioner”. It is beyond dispute that for the most part, white is viewed as beautiful, especially among Asians. It is a historical fact that the Ottoman sultans would have a harem full of golden haired, fair-skinned women. Naturally, therefore, in an age where hair colour is a choice, those who prize “flawless” beauty would also want a choice in skin colour. Hence the burgeoning skin-whitening cosmetics industry in the country, said to be worth billions of ringgit annually.

Unfortunately, research by this newspaper has shown that many of these products, while delivering the promises made, come packaged with lethal danger. Tests done by reputable laboratories show that many, if not most, of them are laced with liberal doses of heavy metals, such as mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic. These are, when ingested or absorbed cumulatively into the body, even in the medium term, carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents. Although there is yet to be definitive proof of links between these cosmetics to cancer, the heavy metals in them suggest nothing less.

The industry has, of late, sprouted like mushrooms after the rain. Small-time brands, some backyard operations and others, nondescript brands imported from China, Thailand and South Korea, account for a successful segment of the small- to medium-sized enterprises in the country. Under the Asean Cosmetics Directive, which the country adopted in 2008 to promote the growth of the cosmetics industry in the region, restrictions are few and entry into the industry is a simple matter of an online registration. The rules and guidelines are undemanding to help the industry grow, which it has. The onus on ensuring safety has been left to the entrepreneurs. Not unnaturally, some are leaving it to the consumers to protect themselves: read the small print. Unfortunately, even the small print is less than rigorous, if not blatant lies.

There must be stricter regulations in the interest of public health and safety. Promoting trade cannot be at the expense of public health. The consequences of compromised public health will be catastrophically high. If the idea is to turn Malaysia into a regional cosmetics hub, the many issues surrounding the industry must be addressed.

Reportedly, the matter will be raised in the next post-cabinet meeting and action to be taken. But what will that be? Will it be a ground-zero approach by cancelling the licence of all products until they are proven to be safe and effective? If that is so, the industry can start again on a clean slate and customers can be assured their safety. However, caution must prevail so that rules and guidelines do not drive the industry underground. Also, there is the matter of interfering in a customer’s choice without proof of links between products and death by cancer in the medium to long term. A prudent approach, therefore, is necessary so that the industry does not suffer from sudden death.

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