An investigative report by a local daily has found that millions of Malaysians have been fuelling a massive illicit cosmetics industry, putting their lives at risk through beauty products. Since March, the newspaper unravelled how the legal framework regulating cosmetics players can be easily circumvented, and how unsuspecting individuals expose themselves to health risks and poisons.

The products - believed to be sourced from China, Thailand and the Philippines, as well as those manufactured locally - contain harmful substances to meet the growing demand for cosmetics or skincare products that result in flawless or fairer skin. With kiosks operating in popular shopping malls, night markets, bazaars and businesses on social media platforms, consumers are spoilt for choice and have easy access to the products.

Laboratories tests run on the products found many hazardous compounds in a broad spectrum of counterfeit and home-grown brands of cosmetics and skincare products - including hydroquinone and mercury, commonly used as a skin-whitening agent.

The compounds included cadmium to erase pigmentation, chromium as a colouring agent, lead for a lasting shiny effect and arsenic to improve complexion, all of which are heavy metals, banned in cosmetics that are regulated under the Asean Cosmetic Directive (ACD).

None of the products have been banned by the Ministry of Health (MOH), or picked up by its "post-market surveillance" mechanism, as they only listed the safe and permissible ingredients on their labels.

Doctors and clinics involved for the profit

Some products required an intravenous approach and were advertised with a list of doctors and clinics that offered the service of injecting the product into the consumers' bloodstream. Health and medical experts warned that these possibly counterfeit products that claim immediate and effective results, can contribute to chronic illnesses, cancer, acute kidney failure or even fatality within a few years of usage.

Other complications include severe swelling, redness and thinning of the skin after using the products, with some suffering from ochronosis, a condition that leaves a permanent blue hue on their skin. They also suffer the risk of dermatitis, severe kidney damage, anxiety, depression, psychosis and peripheral neuropathy.

Experts concerned over the threat to public health posed by these cosmetics, urge authorities to revisit the "Asean harmonising system", implemented through the ACD in 2008, which regulates the industry based on the "honesty" of cosmetics sellers.

Despite the main objective of the ACD "to enhance cooperation amongst member countries in ensuring the safety, quality and claimed benefits of all cosmetic products marketed in Asean", the current system requires no lab tests or registration of the products - just a declaration of the product ingredients through a "notification process".

MOH cracks down on law-avoiding doctors

The MOH's enforcement agencies have begun the crackdown on rogue doctors that have been injecting hazardous beauty concoctions into consumers who are willing to pay for their services - at least RM75 per session.

They have also looked into the loopholes that have allowed these doctors to operate by avoiding law. Although doctors, according to professional laws, are allowed to administer injections, the beauty products are off limits to them, and they have to be caught in the act to be held legally accountable.

The MOH's Pharmaceutical Services Division's enforcement team and Medical Practice Division have begun simultaneous raids on several clinics in Kuala Lumpur, as well as bazaars and night markets to stop the sale of the harmful and unregistered cosmetic products.

MMC and MMA urged doctors to stop being involved

The Malaysian Medical Council (MMC) expressed shock at the involvement of some of its members in the illegal cosmetics industry - disregarding the Hippocratic Oath that they have taken.

Some registered doctors under the MMC have no issues with putting the public's health at risk by intravenously administering unknown substances into consumers.

MMC elected council member, Dr. David Quek Kwang Leng said he was very disturbed by the illegal practice and has heard about the doctors' involvement with the industry, but did not think it would be this bad.

He added that for doctors, arguments such as "the patient was the one who wanted it", was not an excuse as it was the duty of a doctor to ensure that whatever is being prescribed to their patient, is safe.

"If anything goes wrong, the onus is on the doctor... Doctors should never accept any injectable form of vials from patients without knowing the source. We don't know if they are poisonous or have been contaminated or compromised in any way," he added.

Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) president Dr. John Chew Chee Ming, also warned doctors involved to be prepared for legal action -jailed and de-registered- if they were caught injecting patients with beauty concoctions. He urged doctors to only carry out their practice within the confines of law.

He also called for the public to report any doctors or clinics providing beauty injection services for relevant authorities to take action. MIMS

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