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Photography Rachel Cheng via Unsplash

Dangerous levels of mercury found in skin lightening and anti-ageing creams

The products are being sold across the world on online platforms like eBay and Amazon

Mercury contamination has been found in skin lightening and anti-ageing creams sold online across the world, a study has found.

The Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) tested 271 products sold on online platforms like eBay, Amazon and Aliexpress from across 16 countries and discovered nearly half contained mercury, some at levels as high as 65,000ppm. The legal limit in the US is 1ppm, while the EU doesn’t allow any mercury in cosmetics.

Mercury blocks the production of melanin and can be used to remove spots, freckles and blemishes, so it is often used as a skin whitening agent. However, mercury poisoning also causes significant harm, ranging from rashes to kidney disease and nervous system damage. In 2019, a woman fell into a coma after using a mercury-contaminated skin cream bought in Mexico. She was found to have more than 500 times the acceptable amount of mercury in her blood.

“It’s really concerning that these online manufacturers continue to sell and flaunt and profit from illegal products that are doing significant damage to consumers,” Michael Bender, international coordinator with the Mercury Policy Project, told the Guardian. “We’re not finding 1ppm – we’re finding products that are hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of times above [1ppm]. These levels are astronomical.”

The majority of the contaminated products were found in Pakistani, Mexican, Chinese and Thai brands popular in those regions including Pakistan-based companies Goree, Aneeza, Faiza, Chandni and Noor, Thailand-based Kim, China-based Jiaoli, and Mexico-based La Tia Mana. Many others are just being made in someone’s house according to Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, international co-coordinator with ZMWG. This makes it difficult for authorities to find the operation and shut it down.

Skin lightening is still a massive industry across the world with product sales expected to reach nearly $12 billion globally by 2026, ZMWG said. However, some companies have begun to phase out products since the BLM protests in 2020 forced the industry to reckon with racially-insensitive products. 

In June 2020, Johnson & Johnson announced it will no longer sell products that have been used by some consumers to lighten skin tones. These included Neutrogena’s Fine Fairness range and Clear Fairness by Clean & Clear which were sold in Asia and the Middle East as “dark-spot reducers”. Back in 2018, Blac Chyna launched an “illuminating and lightening” cream with skincare brand Whitenicious.