Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Who’s the Fairest of Them All? Those with Mercury Poisoning from Skin Lighteners, That’s Who!

I am shifting gears with this blog post, away from HSE issues to discuss an easily preventable health issue, namely that associated with the widespread use of skin whitening products containing mercury.

My close friend and colleague, Dr. Tom Murphy, recently published an interesting paper on this subject entitled Mercury Contamination of Skin Whitening Creams, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  It is a disturbing read – mercury levels, in certain skin lightening products sold in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, can be up to 35,000 fold higher than guideline values!  High levels of other metals and harmful compounds were also detected in many products tested.  These can cause both acute problems such as skin rashes and longer-term chronic health issues.  Dr. Murphy and his co-authors concluded that mercury is a common problem in bootleg skin whitening creams and is commonly added to creams that are produced in Cambodia.

This problem is not, however, restricted only to Cambodia, rather it is widespread across both developing and developed countries.  I believe this issue needs to be more widely publicized.  So, please spend a few minutes to read this post and become informed about this issue.  Share your new-found knowledge with your colleagues, friends, partners, spouses and/or children.  Warn them of the danger posed by these products so they can make better decisions regarding the use of skin whitening compounds.

The Skin Bleaching Market

White skin is highly sought after in much of Asia to the extent that the global market for these products is projected to reach $23 billion by 2020; much of the demand is driven by growing demand in the Middle East and Asia. 

With such high monetary stakes, it is perhaps not a surprise that some unscrupulous  manufacturers strive to use the lowest-cost whitening compounds in their products.  Unfortunately, mercury fits that profile – it is both cheap and effective.   It also poses significant risk to those who purchase and use these cheap, mercury-containing skin products.

Skin Bleaching Compounds

There are many different compounds that can lighten skin and are used in skin lightening creams.  Some of these are relatively harmless, such as glutathione, lignin peroxidase, arbutin and various botanical/plant extracts. Others such as hydroquinone can have serious side effects but can be useful under medical supervision to treat certain conditions.

The use of mercury for bleaching purpose is an old practice.  The “dead white” look in the 15th to 18th centuries was from painting faces with solutions including lead, vinegar and mercury.  Popular balms, powders and potions of the 19th and early 20th century (with interesting names such as Berry’s Freckle Ointment, Milk of Roses, Snow White Enamel and Flake White) contained mercury, lead, carbolic acid, mercuric chloride and a handful of other corrosives.   Needless to say while these products certainly produced the desired effect of white skin, they did so at the cost of substantial long-term damage to the skin!

Regulation of Mercury in Skin-Bleaching Products

It was not until 1990 that the USFDA first banned the use of mercury in skin-bleaching products in the US.  However, even today there remain concerns of these products in the US, and FDA officials are still warning consumers not to use skin creams, beauty and antiseptic soaps, or lotions that might contain mercury.  FDA notes that these products are manufactured abroad and sold illegally in the United States.

The WHO issued a warning in 2011 related to the wide-spread use and dangers of mercury in skin lightening products.  If these products are still available in the US, where regulations, enforcement and penalties are severe, imagine then the situation in developing countries!  Needless to say, these products are common in many countries in Asia and across the developing world, even though mercury is banned from these products.

Dangers of Mercury in Skin-Bleaching Products

The Zero Mercury Working Group has a good summary report on health impacts from the use of mercury-containing skin bleaching creams.  The most common side effect of these products are skin rashes and allergic reactions, sometimes with severe consequences.  Women who use mercury-containing skin lighteners often have elevated mercury levels in their hair, blood and urine. Kidney damage caused by long-term use of mercury-containing skin-lightening creams has been reported by investigators in China, Hong Kong and the UK.  Mercury is also toxic to the nervous system.  Users of mercury-containing soaps in Kenya had symptoms of nervous system toxicity including tremors, lassitude, vertigo, loss of memory, and generalized aches and pains, all classic signs of inorganic mercury poisoning. The developing brain is particularly sensitive to toxic effects, and the chief public health concern about mercury exposure from fish consumption, for example, is the risk of prenatal damage to the developing fetus. Mercury is also transferred from a mother to her nursing infant in breast milk.  So, there is certainly potential that whitening cream use by the mother can adversely affect  nursing infants.

I personally find it difficult to understand the infatuation with white skin.  In fact, recent studies by UC San Francisco researchers indicate that darker pigmented skin has advantages over lighter skin, including a better barrier to water loss, stronger cohesion, and better antimicrobial defense.  But, in any case, the use of skin bleaching products is a personal choice for consumers.  For those consumers that want to use these products it is important to recognize is that there are safe alternatives.   If skin whitening lotions must be used, then make sure to use safe products rather than the pirated and cheaper ones that contain mercury and other toxicants.  This is not always simple to sort out what is real, what is fake and what has been mid-labelled.  So this is most definitely a buyer beware world.

To conclude, the addition of mercury in skin lightening products is driven purely by greed, as it is cheaper than safe alternatives. Unfortunately, these products are marketed to vulnerable groups that are looking for inexpensive and effective ways to whiten their skin, and who are not aware of the health risks and damage to their skin caused by these products.

Please spread the message and let’s put a stop to this insidious practice!

Thanks for reading.  Keep safe.  Be healthy.  Respect your environment.


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Next Week’s Blog Topic:  One Office Does Not Fit All

Photo Credits:  Mercury in face lighteners image from https://ejatlas.org/conflict/high-mercury-level-in-cosmetics

Randall D. Shaw, Ph.D.
Managing Director at Redlog Environmental Ltd.
Dr. Randall Shaw is Managing Director of Redlog Environmental Ltd. He has a wide-ranging background in health, safety and environment, with a focus on those HSE issues faced by industry in Asia. Dr. Shaw’s blog posts on HSE issues in Asia are based on his experience from working in more than 30 countries, his pragmatic approach to solving HSE problems, and his desire to pass on this knowledge to others. Ultimately, his goal is to help HSE professionals and companies active in the developing world tackle their HSE issues. You can find him on Twitter (@RedlogHSE) and LinkedIn and he is always keen to discuss HSE issues with others.
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