1 in 2 skin lightening products contain toxic levels of mercury

Lena Weib

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An alarming number of skin lightening creams on the market may contain illegal levels of mercury. Getty Images
  • Researchers analyzed over 100 popular skin-lightening or so-called “whitening” products sold on platforms such as Amazon and eBay for mercury.
  • They found that almost half of these cosmetics contained mercury above legal limits.
  • As a heavy metal, mercury is highly toxic to humans and can cause severe symptoms.
  • Researchers are urging people to stop using skin-lightening products to avoid mercury exposure.

Skin-lightening and skin ‘whitening’ products (SLPs) are available worldwide. A recent review of these products currently on the market has found that many still contain dangerous levels of mercury.

Mercury in cosmetics, especially in skin-lightening creams, is not unheard of. The chemical is widely used in such products due to its ability to suppress melanin production, which gives color to the skin, and lighten hyperpigmentation such as dark spots, freckles, and blemishes.

However, mercury is highly toxic to human health.

The Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) analyzed 271 SLPs from over 40 online platforms, including Amazon, eBay, and Aliexpress.

They found that 129 of the products tested contained mercury levels exceeding 1 ppm, the international legal limit set by the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

“We have conducted this type of sampling three times already, so I would not say we were very surprised by the findings,” Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, policy manager at the Zero Mercury Campaign, told Medical News Today.

“However, it is rather worrying that these creams are found to be available, over and over again with very high mercury, in more platforms around the world, in all regions, and in comparison to our last survey,” she said.

The report was published by the European Environmental Bureau.

Regular use of SLPs containing mercury reduces resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, rashes, skin discoloration, and blotchy skin.

In the long term, mercury use has also been linked to damage to the eyes, breathing difficulties, nervous system damage, and kidney disease.

Moreover, people who use mercury-rich SLPs may also unknowingly expose other family members via close contact. Research suggests that homes may even require decontaminating to reduce mercury exposure after using SLPs.

Efforts to raise awareness on SLPs containing mercury are essential to prevent mercury poisoning and negative health consequences.

For the analysis, the researchers created a target list of 80 SLPs considered potentially ‘high-mercury’ products (containing at least 1 ppm mercury) found in 17 countries, including the U.S., Mexico, and India. They then purchased 271 samples and tested them for mercury.

In the end, the researchers found that 25 of the 38 high-mercury SLPs previously found in their 2019 report still contained over 1 ppm of mercury.

A further 18 SLPs that were not identified during the 2018- 2019 testing phase also contained mercury concentrations above legal limits.

Altogether, the researchers found that 47.6% of the 271 samples tested contained levels of mercury that exceeded legal limits.

One important revelation from the analysis is that there are not enough measures to verify the safety and legality of products sold on multiple shopping platforms. Warnings or temporary sale bans also do not prevent them from resurfacing on some sites.

“This investigation confirmed that most e-commerce platforms are not sufficiently motivated to verify the legality of products sold,” write the researchers.

“When these platforms were notified in the past of sales of illegal high-mercury products, a common response was that they voluntarily removed those products from sale and that they put more filters in place as a deterrent. Yet in most cases, those measures did little to deter online sellers,” they explain.

“As noted in the 2019 ZMWG report, follow-up investigations during 2018 showed that the same brands were found to contain high mercury concentrations on several consecutive sampling occasions in both physical shops and via e-commerce platforms,” the report reads.

When asked what safe alternatives exist for people who may wish to use SLPs, Dr. Shari Lipner, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of clinical dermatology at Weill Cornell Medicine, who was not involved in the report, told MNT:

Hydroquinone, licorice, vitamin K, kojic acid, [and] vitamin C are safe skin lightening ingredients. Hydroquinone is no longer available over the counter.”

Dr. Lauren Taglia, Ph.D., a dermatologist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, who was also not involved in the report, added that arbutin is also a safe ingredient to use to lighten dark spots.

Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project, questioned why people might want to use SLPs in the first place.

“Apart from lightening dark spots on the skin, lightening skin is often [indicative] of societies grappling with internalized racism and colorism,” he told MNT.

The report noted that using SLPs may be tied to historic cultural issues that vary by region. For example, in some societies, having lighter skin is thought to differentiate those who “toil in the fields” from “those who can afford to stay out of the sun.”

When asked how consumers can ensure the safety of their skin care products, Lymberidi-Settimo said to avoid SLPs altogether. The ZMWG said it will soon release an online database detailing different skin care ingredients.

Dr. Taglia further advised checking “reputable sources” and whether the FDA has marked any products with a red flag.

“Consumers should see a board certified dermatologist to treat hyperpigmentation disorders. Side effects [such as skin rashes, thinning skin, and skin ulcers] are linked to the use of skin bleaching products that consumers [purchase not from] U.S. drugstores, but from unknown sources online,” Dr. Lipner said.

Dr. Taglia also underscored the importance of not introducing too many skin care products into one’s routine at once.

“With the accessibility to products and social media, I often see that patients are using too many products at one time – especially products with active ingredients. Stripping back to more simple ingredients is better,” she added.

“If you’re using products with active ingredients, rotate through them instead of layering numerous products on at one time. It is always best to talk with a dermatologist or other skin care expert before starting a new skincare routine.”
Dr. Lauren Taglia, Ph.D.

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