Beware of whitening creams

4th January 2023: KKM Banned 2 more skincare Products that contain prohibited substances.

Malaysian’s fascination for white and fair skin knows no boundary. People go the extra mile to achieve this, fueling the skin-lightening cream industry in Malaysia. It remains popular despite the Ministry of Health’s (KKM) regular public health messages warning the public about its danger. KKM regularly monitors these creams and bans any products that contain prohibited ingredients. You can view the complete list of prohibited skincare products here. Among them might be brands you might be familiar with.

As a practicing primary care skin & aesthetic physician, I frequently deal with skin complications from these creams. Among the side effect of these creams are acneiform eruption (acne), skin inflammation, skin bleaching, and rosacea.

Often marketed as an anti-aging, glowing, lightening, and whitening cream, these creams are frequently sold through online channels, social media, or agents. These creams can be formulated locally or imported from neighboring countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, India, or China. Consumers often fall victim to their false claims and testimonial. Users may end up with prolonged detrimental effects on their skin health.

What is in these creams that make them harmful?

1) Mercury

Mercury is dangerous. So why is it added to our skincare creams? Mercury creams can lighten age spots, smoothen the skin, and even reduce acne. It does sound like a magic all-mighty ingredient to have in our skincare, but mercury in creams can poison its user. It can also poison children or babies in the family who are not using the creams themselves. Newborns who nurse are vulnerable because mercury can pass into breast milk. 

The use of mercury cream can affect the brain and nervous system the most. Mercury poisoning can cause headaches, numbness, tingling sensation, loss of balance, difficulty walking, shaking, hearing problems, and vision disturbance. Exposure to a large amount of mercury may even cause coma and death.

The problem with mercury cosmetic creams does not only occur in Malaysia. Even in developed countries like the United States, mercury creams found their way to the hands of its consumers. The US FDA had to issue warning about the danger of mercury cosmetic products, deter the use of these creams.

2) Hydroquinone

Dermatologists commonly use hydroquinone to treat a hyperpigmentation skin condition. It is a bleaching cream to treat skin conditions such as melasma, post-inflammatory skin hyperpigmentation, freckles, and lentigines. So why couldn’t it be used in our skincare?

To some individuals, hydroquinone can cause skin irritation. Individuals who are allergic to hydroquinone may develop redness, skin swelling, a pustular eruption, and skin peeling after using it. Prolonged use of hydroquinone can lead to over-bleaching of the skin resulting in whitish spots on the skin. Usage of highly-concentrated hydroquinone cream can cause exogenous ochronosis, a disfiguring blue-black discoloration of the skin.

In Malaysia and many other countries, hydroquinone is only available on prescription. It shall not be a skincare ingredient and used without proper medical supervision.

3) Tretinoin

Tretinoin is another popular prohibited ingredient found in skin-lightening and anti-aging creams. Tretinoin is an example of retinoids, a chemical compound of vitamin A. Retinol and tretinoin are both examples of retinoids. However, they possess some differences.

While retinol is often found in skincare products to improve fine lines and wrinkles, tretinoin is banned from skincare products. Tretinoin cream is a prescription medication often used to treat acne, hyperpigmentation problems, and certain types of skin cancer.

Tretinoin is a more potent version of retinol. Although it may mean getting a faster result, usage of tretinoin may also cause more side effects. Tretinoin can potentially cause skin irritation, hyperpigmentation, and photosensitivity. Tretinoin cream usage during pregnancy may also cause harm to the fetus. Prolonged use of tretinoin cream can disrupt the skin barrier function.

In my practice, I did witness patients develop sensitive skin after prolonged use of tretinoin cream. They often experience persistent redness, flushing, and visible capillaries on their skin. Patients frequently describe their skin seems thinned out.

4) Steroid:

YES, Steroids. Believe it or not, some of these banned skincare products contain steroids. If the word betamethasone, hydrocortisone, fluticasone, and mometasone is on your cream label, a steroid is in it. More often than not, these will not be on the label, purposefully omitted. 

Why would steroids be used in skincare products? Steroids are used in skincare products because of their effect on the skin. It can reduce skin inflammation, irritation, and hyperpigmentation and help lighten the skin tone.

Steroids are medications used to skin various skin diseases. There is no reason for it to be in a skincare cream. Prolonged use of steroid cream can cause skin thinning, white spots, and visible capillaries. People on prolonged steroids may also develop steroid acne. You can read more about the causes of acne problems in my previous posting titled Acne, Not Just a Teenage Problem

What to do if you think you have been using these creams? My advise to you is;

  • Immediately stop using the cream 
  • You may cross-check this list of banned cosmetic products here
  • Seek medical advice if you feel you are experiencing a side effect from these creams.
  • Report this particular cream to KKM via NPRA – fill up this form and email to