Kanebo Cosmetics early last month issued a recall of 54 types of its skin-whitening products, saying that they caused serious side effects. By July 25, 8,631 people in Japan reported problems related to the products.

The harm done by Kanebo’s products was worsened by the failure of the company to swiftly respond to complaints. Complaints had been coming in from dermatologists and consumers in Japan and other Asian countries since at least 2011, but were only publicly admitted by the company in July. In total, the company has received about 200,000 inquiries about the products.

Such a famous and large company as Kanebo should surely have a functioning system in place to receive and investigate consumer inquiries. Package labeling and usage instructions for the skin whiteners were also found to be vague and unspecific.

For products that alter the human body, specific usage guidelines should be put clearly in place. Apparently they were not. The company has confirmed that 4,061 users are suffering from blotchy skin, with 1,828 suffering serious symptoms.

Instead of lightening the skin tone, as the products promised, users developed symptoms such as white blotches, depigmentation in various parts of the body and in the face, and large areas of skin color change. Some users may have their skin color permanently damaged. The whitening agent in the products was a chemical substance approved by the health ministry in January 2008. The review system for such substances needs to be much stricter.

Interactions with other products must also be considered, as consumers need to know if there are any possible complications when more than one product is used together.

A large, established company such as Kanebo should surely know these basics about safeguards for consumer products, especially those offering a permanent change on the body.

Clearly profit was an issue. Annual sales of whitening products were reported to be ¥200 billion, out of more than ¥2 trillion total for all Japanese cosmetic sales. The harm done is not just domestic. Taiwan is the largest overseas market, but Kanebo’s skin whitening products are sold all over East and Southeast Asia. Unfortunately one bad product from one Japanese company tends to affect the reputation of other Japanese companies.

Kanebo has apologized at a news conference and is offering free checkups and advice. It also issued a recall of the products from retailers throughout Asia and in Britain. In Japan alone, 4.36 million units must be recalled from retailers. The recall will cost an estimated ¥8.4 billion. But whatever the company’s economic losses, they don’t make up for the suffering of customers.

Regardless of the skepticism that one may have toward many Asian consumers’ obsession with light skin tones, beauty products that can cause health problems have no business being on the market. They need to be better regulated and unscrupulous business practices — including corporate neglect — that cause consumers harm must be dealt with in a strict manner.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.