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How social media is fuelling the growth of illegal teeth whitening products

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·5-min read
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Young woman wearing plastic form for teeth alignment or whitening, sitting on the couch after the spa procedures at home
Which? said 21 of the 36 teeth whiteners available on online marketplaces that were tested in the lab exceeded the legal amount of hydrogen peroxide permitted for home use. Photo: Getty

People in the UK are risking permanently damaging their dental health as the popularity of oral tweakments surges on social media, contributing to a rise in illegal teeth whitening products in the country.

While, social media is no stranger to promoting dangerous beauty hacks, from hair growth pills to questionable diet fads, new research revealed the impact of such influence on UK consumers. 

A teeth-whitening craze driven by social media users could be leading people to buy products from online marketplaces including Amazon (AMZN), eBay (EBAY) and AliExpress, according to a Which? investigation. 

The consumer group's research, released on Tuesday, found the products sold online contain illegal levels of hydrogen peroxide, which can burn gums and cause permanent damage to teeth.

Watch: The difference between professional teeth whitening and at-home kits

In the UK, teeth-whitening products sold over the counter should legally contain up 0.1% hydrogen peroxide, while the legal limit for application by professional dentists is 6%.

Despite that, Which? found strips, gel-filled syringes and pens with brush tips that were "dangerously overloaded" with one of the active ingredients used for teeth whitening.

While these items are banned in the UK and are not sold in British stores, UK consumers can purchase them on online marketplaces via third-party sellers on their sites.

Which? said 21 of the 36 teeth whiteners available on online marketplaces that were tested in the lab exceeded the legal amount of hydrogen peroxide permitted for home use.

Teeth whitener tests and where they are sold. Image: Which?
Teeth whitener tests and where they are sold. Image: Which?

Of the nine products tested from eBay, five the law on hydrogen peroxide levels — the worst one contained 7.43% of hydrogen peroxide. 

A spokesperson for eBay said the online retailer has removed "five of the nine listings tested by Which? and taken the appropriate action on the sellers."

"We have filters in places which automatically block listings which are unsafe or do not comply with our policies. These blocked six million unsafe listings from making it onto site in 2020."

EBay said its staff also "work around the clock as an additional safety net" to manually review and remove anything which may not have been caught by the filters.

Watch: How do Influencers make money from TikTok?

In Which?’s tests, the six most dangerous whiteners contained more than 100 times the legal levels of hydrogen peroxide.

Of those, five were sold on AliExpress, with the worst one, a "teeth bleaching gel kit" sold by Oral Orthodontic Materials store, containing 30.7% hydrogen peroxide. The company has since "found the mistake, corrected it time, and removed the product."

On of the teeth-whitening syringes on AliExpress had over 300 times the hydrogen peroxide allowed in the UK. Users of the product, which costs just £0.85 ($1.20) per application, would be at particular risk of serious harm, Which? said.

AliExpress said: "We take product safety very seriously and after being notified by Which? of its findings, we took prompt action and removed the third-party product listings identified to be in violation of our listing policy." It added it will take "action" against the sellers who have breached its marketplace terms. 

Despite Crest Whitestrips not being officially sold in the UK, the group found they were available through a China-based Wish seller willing to ship to the UK. The strips were found to contain more than 132 times the legal amount of hydrogen peroxide in lab tests. 

Procter & Gamble (PG), owner of the Crest brand, told Which? that it doesn’t sell this product in the UK or Europe, as the law doesn’t permit its sale the countries.

Overall, of the eight whitening products Which? bought from AliExpress, seven had too much hydrogen peroxide to be legally sold in the UK. For Wish, four out of six breached legal limits.

Wish told Which? that its internal teams "looked into the items identified" and confirmed that all four listings had been taken down.

Watch: How do influencers make money from Instagram?

Five out of 13 of the products tested on Amazon Marketplace contained illegal amounts of hydrogen peroxide — the worst offender was a pen containing 7.87% of the chemical.

Safety is a "top priority", Amazon said. "We require all products offered in its store to comply with applicable laws and we monitor the products sold in our stores for product safety concerns."

"When appropriate, we remove a product from the store, reach out to sellers, manufacturers, and government agencies for additional information, or take other actions," it added.

The consumer group said it has "shared its findings" with the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) for further investigation. 

It called on the OPSS to "urgently address these gaps in legal responsibilities" as part of its review of product safety and ensure marketplaces remove illegal products from sale as quickly as possible and ensure they do not reappear.

Sue Davies, head of consumer protection policy at Which?, said: "It's clear that self-regulation is not working, leaving people exposed to a flood of unsafe products online. It is absolutely crucial that online marketplaces are given greater legal responsibility for the safety of products sold on their sites, so that shoppers are far better protected from dangerous and illegal items."

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