A young woman from Shenzhen has accused a local beautician of manufacturing and selling toxic face masks, after the face mask lover was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome.
In an interview with Shenzhen TV on Sunday, the 33-year-old tour guide from the southern province of Guangdong told a reporter that she had dangerously high levels of mercury in her bloodstream, which had caused her kidneys to stop functioning properly, and her body to swell up dramatically. The woman, surnamed Sun, showed the TV journalists a report allegedly from the Shenzhen Institute for Drug Control (SIDC), which she said confirmed that the content of mercury in the face masks sold to her was more than eight times the legally allowed amount.
The SIDC declined to verify the woman’s test report when contacted by Sixth Tone on Tuesday. However, another woman in the video confirmed that she and five more of the beautician’s customers had tested the mercury levels in their bodies and received similar results.
The rising popularity of beauty products in China — and in particular those that claim to lighten skin tone — has led to a spate of health warnings regarding the safety of such skin treatments. Over the past decade, domestic media have widely reported how skin-whitening products used or made at beauty salons can contain dangerously high levels of mercury. In 2015, at least eight consumers were diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome after using whitening products at a beauty salon in Jinhua, in eastern China’s Zhejiang province. The mercury levels in their urine were more than 40 times higher than normal. Alarmingly, some of the whitening products used at this beauty salon were found to contain mercury in excess of 7,000 times the level allowed.
Some countries, including the United States, have completely banned the use of mercury in all skin care products.
Sun told Shenzhen TV she spent almost 20,000 yuan ($2,900) between May and November in 2016 on the face masks, which she believed contained traditional Chinese ingredients such as gelatin and ginseng. She also paid the beauty salon owner 28,000 yuan for information about her “whitening secrets.” The beauty salon owner, Tan, disputes the claim that her products are dangerous, although she declined to reveal the ingredients in her face masks.
According to China’s State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), beauty products must be approved before they are sold to customers. However, Tan never obtained the necessary paperwork. The case is currently being handled by Shenzhen’s food and drug administration, and Sun and the other customers are demanding financial compensation for the products’ negative impact on their health and work.
Statistics released last year from Guangdong Provincial Dermatology Hospital showed that the number of skin diseases caused by cosmetics increased in 2015 compared to the previous year — a rise largely attributed to the use of face masks. Women aged 20 to 39 had the most frequent problems, although the report didn’t reveal exactly how or why the products were unsafe.
In an effort to strengthen the safety of the market, Guangdong drafted a new law on cosmetic safety in 2015, which is scheduled to be enacted in 2017. The new regulations will prevent businesses in the beauty industry from manufacturing their own products or adding raw ingredients to existing cosmetic products.
China’s current regulations on the supervision and administration of cosmetics went into effect in 1990, but changes to the industry and consumer habits in the past few decades have left many areas with glaringly insufficient oversight. In 2015, the revised draft issued by the central government said that beauty salons which provide consumers with cosmetics will be managed and supervised with the same level of control as cosmetics companies.
Cao Dequan, deputy secretary-general of the Chinese Association of Plastics and Aesthetics, told Sixth Tone on Monday that Sun’s case was a good lesson for Chinese consumers who lack basic knowledge of skin care. “Consumers should read the ingredients in cosmetics and pick products based on their skin type instead of following fads or putting blind faith in folk remedies,” he added.
(Header image: A woman applies a face mask at her home in Shenyang, Liaoning province, March 12, 2014. Li Zhenyong/VCG)