- Skin whitening products containing mercury compounds are toxic not only to the skin, but to the body as well.
- Tampered skin care containing mercury derivatives, although illegal, is available in the U.S.
- If purchasing skin lightening products online, ensure that you are purchasing from a reputable seller.
- Safe skin-lightening alternatives to mercury include kojic acid, vitamin C, licorice root and niacinamide.
Knowing the origin of your beauty products has never been more critical. News that a 47-year-old woman fell into a coma after using a Ponds face cream recently made headlines across the United States. As the story unfolded, it became apparent that the skin cream was of Mexican origin and contained methylmercury, an illegal skin lightening compound.
Tampered skincare is more common than you may think. In California alone, there have been more than sixty documented cases of poisoning over the past decade, with many of the products imported. Some of these products contained more than 200,000 times the legal limit of mercury.
Why are imported skin lightening creams so problematic?
Imported skin lightening cosmetics, particularly imported skin creams from Mexico, may have been tampered with prior to entering the United States. The demand for potent skin-lightening products has seen an illicit market emerge. Mercury derivatives are added to existing brand-name skin care products, or integrated into homemade formulations. These products may appear as unlabeled jars, or branded products with tampered seals.
“Lightening creams and gels in cosmetics are a growing issue because they cost less than a drug or a doctor,” explains Carola, a chemist with expertise in cosmeceuticals. “Skin lightening creams are not supposed to treat medical conditions such as melasma, or acne scarring, but to help the skin look brighter, more glowing, and give a more even complexion. The desire to speed up the results has created an exploding market containing dangerous compounds, unsafe for cosmetic use.”
Products which have been tampered with may not adhere to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards. While cosmetics imported into the U.S. must meet the same FDA criteria for safety and labeling as those manufactured domestically, this can be hard to regulate and police.
Imported tampered products are often available in predominantly Latino communities, and can be widely found in botanicas, pharmacies, and beauty stores. They can also turn up in shipments from online retailers such as eBay and Amazon. “Normally cosmetic products that contain illegal quantities of hydroquinone and mercury are sold by rogue dealers online from other countries where these compounds are not as controlled as in Europe or the U.S,” explains Carola.
Why Are Mercury Compounds So Dangerous?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mercury is considered one of the top ten chemicals of major public health concern. The FDA banned the use of mercury in most cosmetics in 1974. Only trace mercury levels (0.0001 percent) are allowed in certain eye care products, if no safe or effective alternative is available. Cosmetic products containing in excess of this quantity of mercury are in violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
Unfortunately, in less regulated markets, forms of mercury are commonly found in skin lightening products. These compounds include methylmercury, calomel or mercurous chloride, ammoniated mercury, or mercury oxide. Mercury is essentially a bleaching agent, inhibiting the formation of melanin. It is fast-acting and inexpensive, but is highly toxic because it can be easily absorbed through the skin.
“Mercury is known for its ability to suppress melanin, but it’s a highly poisonous substance, and a very dangerous tool to use in your daily skin routine.” cautions Carola. “When you put more than one part per million of mercury, you will get a bleaching effect, but you will also get mercury deposition in the kidneys and nervous system.” Carola also emphasizes that by reducing melanin deposition, the skin’s protective shield is altered, rendering it more photosensitive and vulnerable to UV rays.
Creams and gels with excess quantities of mercury can lead to life-threatening health problems. Once absorbed into the body, mercury can cause irreversible damage to the nervous system, internal organs, muscles and brain. It can cross the placenta and harm an unborn fetus, and can also be excreted in breast milk. Mercury poisoning is often difficult to diagnose as it is often interpreted as another illness.
Mercury is easily absorbed into the bloodstream. Even when applied topically on an infrequent basis, it can still lead to the following health problems and side effects, including:
- Memory loss
- Metallic taste in mouth
- Muscle weakness or tremor
- Kidney damage
- Contact dermatitis
- Facial discoloration
- Weight loss
In short, the health risk of mercury exposure far outweighs any aesthetic benefit. Products with high levels of mercury contamination appear grey. If you believe you may have purchased a skin lightening product containing a mercury compound, discard it. Consider asking your GP to carry out blood or urine tests to check for mercury poisoning
Checking Your Skin Care is Free of Dangerous Compounds
Skin lightening products marketed at bleaching darker-toned skins have been critiqued for their racist overtones. It’s best to avoid bleaching the skin, and learn to love the skin you’re in. If you use skin lightening creams to help fade pigmentation or discoloration on the face, you should check that:
- The foil seal on any skin cream or lotion you purchase is intact.
- The ingredients of the product are free of compounds that include mercury, cinnabaris, hydroquinone or quicksilver, which can all damage the skin.
- The product hasn’t been imported from Mexico.
- The product isn’t unlabeled or homemade.
- The product has been purchased from a reputable drugstore or beauty counter.
If you are purchasing skin care products online, verify the origin of the manufacturer, and ensure the seller is reputable.
Skin Brightening Alternatives to Mercury
There is a number of natural skin-brightening compounds that represent a safe alternative to mercury. Carola points out that when used consistently over several months, these herbal extracts and peptides will boost your skin’s overall glow or radiance. They won’t, however, reduce dark spots or lighten the skin tone overall, because they can’t reach the melanin which lies in the deeper derma.
These extracts include:
Kojic acid: Kojic acid is a natural whitener derived from several different kinds of fungi. It is a powerful and safe whitening agent when included in cosmetics.
Licorice root extract: This natural plant extract can inhibit melanin synthesis, resulting in whiter-looking skin.
Also, consider scheduling an appointment with a dermatologist. “It is highly recommended that you treat dark spots, acne scarring or hyperpigmentation such as melasma under the care of a doctor who can prescribe safe drugs and advice to speed up the resolution of the discoloration,” urges Carola.
Mercury is highly toxic. Its use in skin lightening products is extremely dangerous, and can result in serious illnesses. If you use skin lightening products, ensure they are free of compounds containing mercury.
Skin lightening products manufactured in Latin America, Africa, or Asia may intentionally contain mercury derivatives. If you suspect you may have been using a product containing mercury, schedule a visit with your GP immediately.
Safe skin-brightening alternatives to mercury include kojic acid, vitamin C, licorice root and niacinamide.
- Engler, Danielle E. (2005) Mercury “bleaching” creams. J AM ACAD DERMATOL VOLUME 52, NUMBER 6. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2005.01.136
- CABANES, J. , CHAZARRA, S. and GARCIA‐CARMONA, F. (1994), Kojic Acid, a Cosmetic Skin Whitening Agent, is a Slow‐binding Inhibitor of Catecholase Activity of Tyrosinase. Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, 46: 982-985. doi:10.1111/j.2042-7158.1994.tb03253.x
- Bissett, D. L., Miyamoto, K. , Sun, P. , Li, J. and Berge, C. A. (2004), Topical niacinamide reduces yellowing, wrinkling, red blotchiness, and hyperpigmented spots in aging facial skin1. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 26: 231-238. doi:10.1111/j.1467-2494.2004.00228.x
- Siti Umrah Noor, Faridah faridah, Michico michico. (2016) FORMULATION OF LIQUORICE ROOT EXTRACT (Glycyrrhiza glabra L.) AS SKIN WHITENING CREAM. DOI :10.22435/toi.v9i2.8968.93-99