Skin Lightening Creams Contain Dangerously High Levels Of Toxic Mercury

Public health officials expressed concern about the levels of toxic mercury found in some skin creams at a meeting of the American Chemical Society. Dr. Gordon Vrdoljak of the California Department of Public Health said his lab found dangerously high amounts in skin lightening creams, which are often made outside the U.S.

In California, there have been about 60 cases of mercury poisoning in the past 5 years, Vrdoljak said. In many cases, people seek medical help when they experience symptoms like shaky hands, headaches, or fatigue. When mercury is identified at the cause of the problem, the Department of Health can work with patients to find the source.

In the U.S., products can contain no more than 1 part mercury per million, but Vrdoljak found creams with levels as high as 210,000 parts per million. These creams are used to lighten skin, bleach dark spots and even treat acne. Although effective, the mercury has been shown to damage the kidneys, impair cognitive functioning, cause headaches and cause depression.

Despite the limits imposed by the U.S. and several other countries, skin products containing high levels of the toxin are still slipping below the regulatory radar. The creams are typically purchased outside of the U.S., and are brought into the country in personal luggage. They may be distributed among friends and family, or sold in small ethnic markets. In some cases, the products may even be homemade.

Lightening creams usually contain mercury salts, which is absorbed through the skin. “If you’re rubbing your face, rubbing your eyes and eating, you can also ingest it,” Vrdoljak said at a press conference.

It’s not only the users of the creams who are at risk, but their families as well. The substance can be transferred by touch, contaminating food and bedding. Mercury can also become airborne and contaminate the rest of the house.

Vrdoljak developed a new way of testing products for mercury, called total reflection x-ray fluorescence. The method allows researchers to detect the presence of mercury more accurately, and also to test more samples in a day.

Better testing means that Vrdoljak’s team can be more proactive about identifying harmful products. It’s difficult to know how commonly these products are used in the U.S., said Vrdolijak, “But at least with this new technique, we can identify them much faster and help more people than before.”

Written by Margaret Badore, TreeHugger.

image credit: Promo image Shills

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Lisa Hill
Lisa Hillabout a year ago

People should know the ingredients of all creams and lotions before applying them since a small amount of harmful chemicals like mercury or lead can create havoc with the skin. In many cases it may even lead to cancer that may be fatal for the person. Cream Manufacturing companies need to wake up and stop playing for profits.

Carol F.
Carol F.about a year ago

Very interesting, thanks for the article.

Judy Apelis
Judy Apelisabout a year ago

Ok, thank you!

Karen K.
Karen K.about a year ago

It would be nice if society and people would be fine with just getting gray and wrinkly and growing old, aging gracefully and normally! I'll give it a try though!

Debra Shapiro
Debra Shapiroabout a year ago

Many women who have used Oral contraceptives or have been pregnant suffer from Melasma or chlorasma, a patchy hyperpigmentation of the face that isn't attractive. The prescription product that helps is 4% hydroquinone that is part of the Obagi system. I wonder if the author is suggesting that these products contain mercury, or if the over the counter products ( which do nothing really) contain mercury. More data would be helpful. Splotchy hyperpigmentation is hormone related and a serious concern for many women.

Francesca A-S
Past Member about a year ago

I don't think I use any kind of makeup/beauty products, I agree with Debbie W and Charmaine C here.

Nils Anders Lunde
Nils Anders Lundeabout a year ago


Darren Woolsey
Darren Woolseyabout a year ago

Yep, only if you're fashion and image conscious would you want to waste money on skin ligtening creams. . .

Charmaine C.
Charmaine C.about a year ago

Be happy. Perfection belongs in the song of a waterfall, the beauty of a sunset, the flash of a bird's wing and the unexpected kiss from a person that can see nothing but your beauty.

Judy Apelis
Judy Apelisabout a year ago