Toxic levels of mercury contaminate 1 in 30 skin-lightening creams (and maybe not by accident)

Toxic levels of mercury contaminate about 1 out of 30 skin-lightening creams purchased in stores and online, according to an international team of researchers who measured mercury levels in more than 500 products worldwide. If you’re like me (pasty and with a family history of melanoma), then you may never have heard about these creams used by millions of women worldwide to smooth and lighten their skin color. When women apply these contaminated creams day after day, they are doing more than changing their skin: they are also dosing themselves with dangerous amounts of mercury that can damage their kidneys and poison their nervous systems.

Disturbingly, the most toxic creams may be best ones for lightening skin. The same traits that make mercury so deadly also make it great at disrupting the body’s ability to create melanin, which darkens our skin. This gives manufacturers a perverse incentive to ignore the FDA’s and European Union’s strict limits on mercury in cosmetics. Because the levels of mercury were so high in some products—up to 45,000 times the FDA’s limit, which is more than enough to sicken a large woman—the researchers accused manufacturers of deliberately adding the mercury to make their products more effective. And, unfortunately, more toxic.

But why would women use skin lighteners in the first place? I’d always assumed that prizing light skin was a legacy of Victorian colonialism and discrimination in the U.S. and Africa. But it turns out that China and India have long favored fair skin, thanks to its associations with being the pre-industrial equivalent of a wealthy person with an indoor desk job.  It’s easy to just dismiss women who use lightening creams as being vain—and the health risks they take as being deserved—but given the numerous social and career advantages afforded to attractive women, I think it would be equally possible to argue that they’re taking rational risks.

But I’m not going to argue for either vanity or rationality. Instead, I’m going to argue for giving the FDA and other countries’ enforcement agencies the means—and by means, I mean money—to better enforce their regulations. Because regardless of their motives—vanity, or logic—people deserve to be safe from exposure to one of the worst toxins out there.

Hamann C.R., Boonchai W., Wen L., Sakanashi E.N., Chu C.Y., Hamann K., Hamann C.P., Sinniah K. & Hamann D. (2013). Spectrometric analysis of mercury content in 549 skin-lightening products: is mercury toxicity a hidden global health hazard?, Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, PMID: