Skin lightening creams found to contain dangerous and illegal levels of mercury

Skin lightening creams found to contain dangerous and illegal levels of mercury
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  • An investigation into skin-lightening products sold online found mercury in nearly half of products tested.
  • Federal law and an international treaty restrict the use of mercury in cosmetics to 1 ppm.

Skin-lightening creams containing mercury are still sold online despite a multinational agreement to stop making them, according to a new report from the Zero Mercury Working Group.

The group has been investigating mercury in skin-lightening products since 2017, but the latest report is the first look at the online market since international regulations on the heavy metal took effect.

Researchers found that out of 271 whiteners, brighteners, and fading creams sold online across 17 countries, 129 of them contained more than the legal limit of mercury . The products were first screened by ZMWG and then double-checked by an accredited laboratory in the European Union.

The European Environmental Bureau, as well as the US Food and Drug Administration, banned the use of mercury in most cosmetics decades ago. However, some skin-lightening products have slipped through the cracks.

Using skin-lightening products containing mercury can cause a blotchy rash in the short term, but exposure over a lifetime could have further damage to vital organs, according to the Environmental Working Group.


"People shouldn't have to worry that they're putting their health at risk by doing something as routine as applying skin cream or lotion," Melanie Benesh, an attorney with EWG, said in a press release. "It shouldn't be this easy to buy an illegal, dangerous product."

Dangerous levels of mercury have gone unchecked online

Since 2013, more than 100 countries have signed a treaty to restrict the use of mercury in cosmetics to 1 part per million (or 1 mg/kg), excluding eye area cosmetics that use small amounts of the stuff as a preservative.

Although the treaty came into full force in 2021, ZMWG's latest investigation revealed that nearly half of the skin-lightening products tested were in violation of the 1 ppm limit.

More than 40 retailers including Amazon and eBay sold products containing widely illegal levels of mercury online at the time of the investigation. Some of the products tested contain as much as 65,000ppm of mercury, which is well above any historical limit on the heavy metal.

Consumers who assume their skincare products are covered by FDA guidelines might not consider the risk of using face creams sold online, so the report called upon retailers to better enforce their restricted item policies, which would ban the use of mercury in cosmetics.


For instance, Amazon's policy states, "Products offered for sale on Amazon must comply with all laws and regulations and with Amazon's policies. The sale of illegal, unsafe, or other restricted products listed on these pages . . . is strictly prohibited."

Amazon and eBay did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.

Mercury is used as a skin lightening agent

Cosmetic products that are marketed as "skin lightening" or "anti-aging" may be more likely to contain some level of mercury, according to the FDA.

Mercury can have a skin-lightening effect by suppressing the production of melanin, the compound that makes skin look darker. The heavy metal has been used as an ingredient in lightening creams marketed towards Black and brown people, as well as treatments meant to remove age spots, freckles, blemishes, and wrinkles.

The FDA recommends checking ingredient labels for words like "mercurous chloride," "calomel," "mercuric," and "mercurio" — all of which indicate the presence of mercury. If you discover a product containing mercury, thoroughly wash any skin that's been exposed and make sure to dispose of the product in a leak-proof bag or container.


In any case, contact a healthcare professional if you believe you're having a reaction to mercury.