Government Investigates Skin Lightening Creams for Mercury Content


Health officials in California are investigating the ingredients in several skin lightening creams. According to reports, the imported creams are suspected to contain the toxic element mercury, which can cause neurological and physical damage.

Officials plan to collect samples of the various creams made outside the United States. The creams claim to lighten a user’s complexion, either overall or in spots suffering from hyperpigmentation. It may seem iffy—people want to change the color of their skin?—but these types of lightening creams are the norm in many countries across the world who deem lighter skin as more beautiful. Most of these creams are manufactured in China, the Philippines, India, and Mexico. They’re then exported to the United States, and serve ethnic communities such as the ones in California.

Mercury Contamination Becomes a Problem in California

The investigation stems back to 2010, when a Latina woman from California participating in a health study was found to have alarmingly high mercury levels. Researchers notified officials, who traced the levels back to the woman’s usage of skin lightening creams. The cream was given to her by Virginia relatives who had brought it back from Mexico. The cream was in an unlabeled jar. Health officials were able to find 22 people, mostly friends and family of the Virginia relatives, that used the cream. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention has issued a warning to people using similar creams containing mercury in the latest Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

“This is one of the first investigations of the problem within California,” explained Dr. Rapali Das, chief of the Environmental Health Investigations Branch of the state Department of Public Health and author of the MMWR report. “Why [we’re focusing] attention on the issue now—these cases have come to our attention here, we think it’s enough of a problem to address it.”

Mercury Poisoning Symptoms

Mercury is a heavy metal that is toxic to humans in high enough doses. In the United States, most mercury poisoning is caused by fish, whale, and dolphin consumption. If someone has been poisoned by mercury, they will likely experience neurological and physical symptoms. Neurological symptoms of mercury poisoning include irritability, memory loss, and suicidal thoughts. Physical symptoms include skin discoloration, swelling, and skin shedding. If mercury usage is continued, the results may be fatal.

Mercury in Cosmetics

The United States has banned any cosmetics with mercury content. The ban is difficult for some aesthetic lovers to face, because mercury is popular internationally for lightening the skin, treating acne, and fading scars. “It’s effective. It’s just dangerous for you,” said Dr. Mark Miller, director of the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit at UCSF and co-author of the MMWR report.

The California investigation on cosmetic mercury isn’t the first of its kind. Texas, New York, and Minnesota have all held studies on imported creams and found traces of mercury. Some health officials say that they are worried not only about the effects of mercury on the adults that purchase them—but the children that are using it as well.

Since mercury is illegal in the United States, you can continue using your domestic products. If you do use cosmetics from overseas—particularly ones that claim to lighten skin—always check the labels first. Mercury as a cosmetic ingredient is often coined using other terms, like “mercury,” “mercurio,” or “calomel” (mercurous chloride). Consumers should completely avoid any products that don’t list ingredients.

Fortunately, there are plenty highly effective treatments for skin discoloration, acne, and scarring that don’t contain mercury. Microdermabrasion and chemical peels are popular for skin lightening and scar removal because it removes the outermost layers of the skin, revealing a bright, fresh face underneath. Acne can be greatly improved with the IPL Photofacial, which uses intense pulsed light to refine the complexion. If you’d like to learn more about these in-office skincare solutions, contact our representatives today. We’ll book you a free consultation with an aesthetician in your area who can give you more information on these services.

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