Mercury in skin lightening creams

The Chicago Tribune’s recent investigation in to skin lightening creams on sale in the US revealed that some still use mercury even though it is banned by federal law. Mercury is used in skin whiteners because the metal blocks production of melanin which gives hair and skin their pigmentation. Other chemicals can do the same thing, but mercury is inexpensive and effective.

However, mercury is also toxic. It is rapidly absorbed through the skin and can affect people neurologically so that they could experience blurred vision or trouble walking. Severe mercury poisoning can shut down organs and lead to death.

Besides mercury, two other ingredients sometimes found in skin lighteners concern medical experts — steroids and hydroquinone. High amounts of hydroquinone, a bleaching agent, may darken skin, and animal studies suggest it could cause cancer.

The market for skin lighteners is booming in the U.S. and abroad. Sales of lightening products in the U.S. are expected to increase nearly 18% by 2015, reaching $76 million annually. Some people of Asian, Hispanic and African heritage use the creams because lighter skin is often considered a status symbol in their cultures.

The Tribune sent 50 skin-lightening creams to a certified lab for testing, most of them bought in Chicago stores and a few ordered online. Six creams (manufactured in Lebanon, China, India, Pakistan and Taiwan) were found to contain amounts of mercury banned by federal law, five had more than 6,000 parts per million — enough to potentially cause kidney damage over time. The highest level of mercury, nearly 30,000 parts per million, turned up in a circular container of thick, white cream labeled as Stillman's Skin Bleach Cream.

However, some of the more popular skin lightening creams tested by the Tribune did not contain any mercury, including Dr. Fred Summit Skin Whitener and Fair & White, a well-known lightener made in France.

The Tribune tests were conducted by Columbia Analytical Services, a lab in Kelso, Wash. The Food and Drug Administration banned mercury in skin-bleaching or lightening products in 1990, but the agency rarely tests the products to see if consumers are at risk.

Dr. Roopal Kundu, assistant professor of dermatology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, said patients can ask for a prescription for a  skin lightener from a doctor but that the cream should be used only to lighten spots, not for bleaching normally dark skin.

For the full story

June 2010


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