Canada’s health regulator has told an Etobicoke beauty store to stop selling unauthorized products after seizing skin creams and gels it says “may pose serious health risks” to the public.
About a month after the Star began asking questions about products sold at Excel Beauty Supply in Albion Centre mall, Health Canada inspected the store. The six seized products were sold on shelves like other cosmetics, but they contained prescription drugs.
Marketed for removing skin spots or discolouration and for whitening, these products could lead to “skin deterioration, low or high blood pressure, blisters or scarring,” according to a Health Canada safety alert issued Dec. 27. The alert said they should not be taken without the supervision of a healthcare professional.
The inspection occurred Dec. 18. That morning, the Star published its investigation that found cosmetics sold across the GTA, in both big-box and small retailers, contained banned and potentially hazardous chemicals even though many of the risks they contain are listed right on their labels. Some of the products featured in the article were sold at Excel.
When asked if the suppliers, distributors or manufacturers of the products at Excel will face any regulatory action, Health Canada told the Star its investigation is ongoing and the regulator will take additional action “should any other unauthorized products be identified.”
A man who identified himself as the owner of Excel but refused to give his name, told the Star he had no idea the products in his store, including the skin creams, were unauthorized.
He said that as a small business owner, for whom English is a second language, he relied on the honesty and expertise of his suppliers to provide him with products that he assumed had been approved by the Canadian government. “How do I know” whether the products were legal and safe? he told the Star. “How did the product come into Canada? How did it come here in the beginning? I don’t know!”
Cosmetic regulations allow companies 10 days to sell their products before telling Health Canada what they are or what’s in them. Since 2005, Health Canada has received nearly 422,000 new cosmetics notifications, with significant increases in 2019 over 2018, and Health Canada is straining to keep up with the deluge of creams, sprays, toothpastes and shampoos.
The oversight system tasked with ensuring the safety of cosmetics is designed to catch problems based on information that manufacturers are required to submit. Health Canada reacts to consumer complaints as well as incidents the industry shares. But it conducts the majority of its oversight by scanning for banned substances in ingredient lists in new products that are submitted to its online notification system. Ninety-seven per cent of these lists comply with regulations, according to Health Canada. A significant majority of the remaining three per cent that are found with a problem — such as a banned ingredient or an incorrect label, for instance — are resolved after Health Canada seeks clarification from the company.
Health Canada recently said that it has improved the time it takes to deal with banned ingredients it finds through its notification system from nine months to 49 days.
The federal government defines cosmetics as products, including deodorant and perfume, that are intended to improve the appearance and cleanliness of our hair, skin or teeth.
Companies flying under Health Canada’s radar, such as distributors who buy about-to-expire lots and sell them to retailers who offer consumers discounted prices, likely aren’t submitting ingredients lists to the government.
Among the products the Star found that listed banned ingredients on their labels are a leave-in hair detangler for kids, a kohl eyeliner flagged repeatedly by Health Canada and other health authorities around the world for containing lead, a known neurotoxin, and a nail kit for kids with a label that said it contained a banned ingredient that can rip the flesh right off a child’s finger.
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During its investigation, the Star went to Excel, a store specializing in cosmetics marketed to ethnic communities, and found an entire section devoted to creams and gels that lighten, fade and remove skin spots. The Dec. 27 safety alert warned consumers that such unauthorized products with “prescription drugs” are illegal to sell in Canada. The alert said these products haven’t been assessed for safety, effectiveness or quality and may be contaminated or “may contain dangerous ingredients not listed on the label.”
Several of the products the Star found during its reporting contained hydroquinone, an ingredient Health Canada said is “not permitted for use in cosmetic products intended to be used on the skin” and has been deemed “toxic” because it has been shown to cause cancer in some animal studies. The alert said it wasn’t recommended for children, pregnant and breastfeeding women and “should be used with caution in those who have previously had cancer.” Side effects, according to the alert, range from cracked skin and peeling to “skin discolouration… that, in some cases, can be disfiguring.”
Health Canada says hydroquinone-containing products may also be regulated as natural health products or drugs and that as of June last year certain products with the ingredient need a prescription. Some products with hydroquinone that were sold over-the-counter have been recalled since June, the alert says.
Among the skin creams the regulator said it seized during its inspection were products with other prescription ingredients including corticosteroids used to treat inflammatory skin conditions, and that can cause severe fatigue, weight gain, high blood pressure and other symptoms. One skin whitener contained a prescription drug used to treat vaginal yeast infections. Possible side effects include nausea, low blood pressure and hives. “What you should do” Health Canada says in the alert. “Stop using these products.”