A Chinese cosmetics company is using skin
harvested from the corpses of executed convicts
to develop beauty products for sale in Europe,
an investigation by the Guardian has discovered.
Agents for the firm have told would-be customers
it is developing collagen for lip and wrinkle
treatments from skin taken from prisoners after
they have been shot. The agents say some of the
company‘s products have been exported to the UK,
and that the use of skin from condemned convicts
is “traditional“ and nothing to “make such a big
With European regulations to control cosmetic
treatments such as collagen not expected for
several years, doctors and politicians say the
discovery highlights the dangers faced by the
increasing number of people seeking to improve
their looks. Apart from the ethical concerns,
there is also the potential risk of infection.
The House of Commons‘ Select Health Committee
is to examine the regulatory system and may
launch an investigation and question ministers
about the need for immediate new controls.
“I am sure that the committee will want to
look at this,“ said Kevin Barron, its Labour
chairman. “This is something everyone in society
will be very concerned about.“
Plastic surgeons are also concerned about the
delay in introducing regulations to control the
It is unclear whether any of the “aesthetic
fillers“ such as collagen available in the UK or
on the Internet are supplied by the company,
which cannot be identified for legal reasons. It
is also unclear whether collagen made from
prisoners‘ skin is in the research stage or is
However, the Guardian has learned that the
company has exported collagen products to the UK
in the past.
An agent told customers it had also exported
to the US and European countries, and that it
was trying to develop fillers using tissue from
When formally approached by the Guardian, the
agent denied the company was using skin
harvested from executed prisoners. However, he
had already admitted it was doing precisely this
during a number of conversations with a
researcher posing as a Hong Kong businessman.
“A lot of the research is still carried out
in the traditional manner using skin from the
executed prisoner and aborted fetus,“ the agent
told the researcher.
This material, he said, was being bought from
“biotech“ companies based in Heilongjiang
Province and was being developed elsewhere in
He suggested that the use of skin and other
tissues harvested from executed prisoners was
“In China it is considered very normal and I
was very shocked that Western countries can make
such a big fuss about this,“ he said.
Speaking from his office in northern China,
he added: “The government has put some pressure
on all the medical facilities to keep this type
of work in low profile.“
The agent said his company exported to the
west via Hong Kong.
“We are still in the early days of selling
these products, and clients from abroad are
quite surprised that China can manufacture the
same human collagen for less than 5 percent of
what it costs in the West,“ he said.
Skin from prisoners used to be even less
expensive, he said. “Nowadays there is a certain
fee that has to be paid to the court.”
The agent‘s admission comes after an inquiry
into the cosmetic surgery industry in Britain,
commissioned by the Department of Health,
pointed to the need for new regulations
controlling collagen treatments and the use of
cadavers for cosmetic treatments.
The Department of Health has agreed to the
inquiry‘s recommendations, but is waiting for
the European commission to draw up proposals for
laws governing cosmetic products. It could be
several years before this legislation takes
Meanwhile, cosmetic treatments, including
those with with aesthetic fillers, are growing
rapidly in popularity. Lip enhancement
treatments are one of the most popular.
Some fillers are made from cattle or pig
tissue, and others from humans. Health officials
believe that there may be a risk of transmission
of blood-borne viruses and even vCJD from
collagen containing human tissue.
While new regulations are to be drawn up, the
UK‘s health department is currently powerless to
regulate most human-tissue fillers intended for
injection or implant, as they occupy a legal
grey area. Most products are not governed by
regulations controlling medical products, as
they are not classified as medicines.
They also escape cosmetics regulations, which
only apply to substances used on the surface of
the skin and not those injected beneath it. The
UK Healthcare Commission is planning new
regulations for cosmetic surgery clinics next
year, but these will not control the substances
used by plastic surgeons.
A number of plastic surgeons have said that
they have been hearing rumors about the use of
tissue harvested from executed prisoners for
several years. Peter Butler, a consultant
plastic surgeon and UK government adviser, said
there had been rumors that Chinese surgeons had
performed hand transplants using hands from
executed prisoners. One transplant center was
believed to be adjacent to an execution ground.
Human-rights activists in China have
repeatedly claimed that organs have been
harvested from the corpses of executed prisoners
and sold to surgeons offering transplants to
fee-paying foreigners. Although the exact number
of people facing the death penalty in China is
an official secret, Amnesty International
believes around 3,400 were executed last year,
with a further 6,000 on death row.