Beauty supplement claiming to be made in Australia to ‘whiten skin’ criticised as ‘unethical’
Posted on March 13th, 2020

By Tasha Wibawa Courtesy ABC News

The packaging of Facia Premium which has a photo of a Caucasian woman next to "skin lightening formula"

PHOTO: The Australian Therapeutic Goods Association does not approve products to be sold as “skin lightening”. (Supplied: Krisantha Weerasuriya)

A “skin lightening” product advertised as made in Australia, which is being sold in South Asian countries including Sri Lanka and Myanmar, has been slammed by experts and labelled “unethical”.

Key points:

  • The packaging of the product is advertised in Myanmar and Sri Lanka as “skin lightening”
  • Listed medicines in Australia cannot be sold for “skin whitening/lightening”
  • The Department of Health does not consider the use of glutathione for skin lightening purposes

The product, called Facia Premium, has “Made in Australia” on its label and an “AUST L” number which corresponds to a listing in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG).

Under therapeutic goods laws, Australian companies are not allowed to sell or export a listed medicine making the claim of “skin lightening”.

“During the listing process for new listed medicines, sponsors can only choose from a list of permissible indications … This list does not contain any indications referring to ‘skin lightening’ or ‘skin whitening’,” a spokesperson from the Department of Health said.

A shelf of boxed medicinal products in Sri Lanka including Facia Premium.

PHOTO: The ABC understands the products are being sold in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. (Supplied: Krisantha Weerasuriya)

The listing in the ARTG says the capsules are a health and beauty supplement, which can be sold as a product that “maintain[s]/support[s] skin health” among many other potential benefits.

However, the product for sale in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and on eBay is being sold as a “skin lightening formula”.

The packaging shows a Caucasian womanand an Australian flag with the words “Made in Australia”.

An advertisement of the product on the Facia Sri Lanka Facebook page from 2018 also shows the same packaging alongside “best skin lightening solution” underneath an Australian flag logo which reads “a quality product from Australia”.

YOUTUBE: Facia Premium Skin Lightening Formula advertisement translates to, “be fair, with no fear”.

Australian company Zifam Pinnacle Pty Ltd, which markets Facia in Australia, and Contract Manufacturing & Packaging Services Pty Ltd (CMPS), which manufactures Facia products, are both featured on the packaging of the Facia Premium capsules for sale in Asia.

A representative of Zifam in Australia told the ABC the items were packaged in Australia and sent overseas.

The ABC sent a series of questions to both companies, Zifam and CMPS, but has not yet received a response.

‘Made in Australia’ respected overseas

A woman in a red dress strokes her arm next to an image of a Facia package.

PHOTO: Facia Premium is being sold in Myanmar. (Facebook)

Ken Harvey, associate professor at Monash University’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, told the ABC the product was “unethical” and “misleading”.

Items made in Australia, particularly supplements or pharmaceuticals, are respected overseas as they are often perceived to be “high quality” products, he said.

The back of the Facia Premium sachet lists the products contents and says "Australian owned and Australian made".

PHOTO: The Facia Premium sachet sold in Sri Lanka says “Australian owned and Australian made”. (Supplied)

“It’s exporting a white Australia policy [that] pushes a racist idea that beauty is equated with white skin, fuels intolerance of dark skinned people, causes social harm and wastes consumers’ money,” Dr Harvey said.

The product suggests it uses a “glutathione complex”, which is a controversial antioxidant found in plants, animals and fungi with skin-lightening claims.

Dr Harvey said there was “limited scientific evidence” to support the claims made about glutathione.

“There have been a very small number of studies on glutathione on a small numbers of patients, not well conducted and not replicated … we don’t regard that as conclusive evidence,” he said.

An advertisement posted on Facebook shows a woman smiling on a package of skin lightening formula.

PHOTO: The TGA does not consider the use of glutathione for skin lightening purposes. (Facebook)

A Health Department spokesperson said, “the TGA has not considered the use of glutathione for skin lightening/whitening purposes. There has been no application for this indication to be considered for inclusion as a permissible indication.”

Dr Harvey and Sri Lankan public health expert Krisantha Weerasuriya filed an official complaint to the TGA in February, listing four products by the same distributor, Zifam Pinnacle.

The back of Facia Premium sachet showing "made in Australia".

PHOTO: The back of a Facia Premium sachet saying “made in Australia”. (Supplied)

“These products rely on widely held prejudices. They are very popular in Sri Lanka due to false marketing,” Dr Weerasuriya, a professor emeritus from the University of Colombo and former WHO CEO in Sri Lanka, told the ABC.

“This promotion brings Australia’s reputation into disrepute. These products … must be removed.”

Pharmaceutical companies are only able to promote the benefits of listed medicines from a list of pre-approved “indications”, and while not tested by the TGA prior to going to market, sponsors must hold information to substantiate all of their product’s claims.

There are approximately 12,000 medicines listed on the ARTG at any one time and more than 1,000 are newly listed each year.

In 2017–18, the TGA conducted 243 post-marketing compliance reviews, of which 53 per cent were found to have had a compliance breach.

‘Everyone will try anything’

A bilboard selling a product called Fair and Lovely with a before and after photo of a woman.

PHOTO: Experts say skin whitening products are a part of everyday life for many women in Asia. (Flikr: Adam Jones)

For some who do not know any better, the trust in the “Made in Australia” label is a big selling point.

“Tell me where I can get [the product] so I can buy it,” Jeannie Cruse, a Sri Lankan Australian told the ABC.

“I’ve tried everything [but] I do more natural stuff.”

While Ms Cruse said more Sri Lankans should embrace their “beautiful dark skin”, she also said she felt a “fair face looks more clear, neat and is better looking”.

“So that’s why Sri Lanka is probably a good market because everyone will try anything,” she said.

Samanthi Gunawardana, senior lecturer of gender and development at Monash University, told the ABC there was great value placed on fairness in South Asia, particularly in Sri Lanka, although people won’t necessarily say it out loud.

A women looks at the camera while taking a selfie.

PHOTO: Jeannie Cruse says more Sri Lankans should embrace their “beautiful dark skin”. (Supplied: Jeannie Cruse)

“Skin whitening products and services are ubiquitous in Sri Lanka as in a lot of parts of Asia,” she said.

“It’s a part of everyday life particularly for women. There is a cultural norm that being fair is seen to be more beautiful.

“Your price value is essentially attributed to your skin colour.”

Dr Gunawardana said the prejudice and discrimination based on skin colour, particularly in Sri Lanka, has “complex” colonial and racist undertones.

“The basis is around the complexity regarding gender, the norms around payments for women … the history of colonialism and how war and conflict can impact the way we see things, like skin colour,” she said.

However, there was a strong pushback, particularly from younger women in the country.

“Many women have started movements, for example that brown skin is youthful, very similar to black is beautiful. So trying to reframe that argument … that unless you have fair skin you’re not seen as a valuable person in more ways than one,” Dr Gunawardana said.

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