You may have heard that mercury can lurk in things like sushi and dental fillings, but it turns out that dangerous levels of this toxic heavy metal can also be found in skin-care products, particularly those from foreign countries. And while that last part may make you breathe a sigh of relief, there's still plenty of reason to be cautious about what you're applying onto your skin. Even though skin-care products containing an abundance of mercury aren't made in or technically available for sale in the U.S., it's possible they could still be purchased and shipped straight to your doorstep via online retailers like Amazon and eBay. This was the case when advocacy groups recently purchased products for testing.
What's the deal with mercury in skin-care products?
Recently, 51 advocacy groups sent public action letters to both e-commerce giants, calling on them to "stop marketing illegal mercury-laden cosmetics" and "to ensure that cosmetics found to have mercury levels over 1ppm are no longer offered for sale" after testing revealed that many of them contained extremely high levels of mercury. For context, in the U.S., the legal limit of mercury that can be present in cosmetics formulas, which was set forth by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) back in 1973, is just one part per million (ppm).
According to the letters sent to Amazon and eBay, skin-care creams were purchased by some of the advocacy groups and their mercury levels were tested. Shockingly, one of the test results revealed mercury levels 30,000 times the legal limit.
Why is this an issue?
"Most Americans are aware that mercury is dangerous, but many people don't realize that [it's] sometimes used as the active ingredient in skin-lightening creams," explains Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney for the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which was one of the advocacy groups behind the letters and who issued a press release about the findings. "Mercury cannot be used more than 1ppm in skin creams, but the FDA lacks resources to adequately police the marketplace."
The main reason that mercury is used in moisturizers, as Benesh explained, is as a skin "lightener." Mercury can act as a bleaching agent, and it also holds certain preservative properties (which means it can help elongate a product's shelf-life). It's also an inexpensive ingredient. In cosmetics, high mercury levels are most commonly found in products that promise to fade dark spots, blemishes, and fine lines. "Mercury is an effective material for skin lightening, with rapid results, but the price outweighs the benefits," explains cosmetic chemist Ginger King. It's a poison that can damage skin and even organs, she adds.
How is mercury hazardous in products?
That being said, mercury is highly toxic. When applied topically, mercury is associated with the development of skin irritation, rashes, and discoloration, says Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. "If it's absorbed, [it] can even cause mercury poisoning with toxicity to the kidneys and nervous system."
Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that the primary adverse effect of mercury in skin-care products is kidney damage. And, in addition to what Zeichner noted, it can also cause anxiety, depression, and even psychosis. Long-term use of cosmetics that contain mercury can cause damage to the eyes, lungs, digestive, nervous and immune systems. So yeah, it can be pretty toxic stuff.
Exposure to mercury could come from your environment as well
"We know that inhaling mercury vapor can be harmful to your health," explains Zeichner. "We don't know what effect mercury containing creams have on the air, so that is even more of a reason to avoid these products."
One example that illustrates the potential harm of mercury exposure other than via the skin is from research on mercury exposure during pregnancy: Studies suggest an association between mercury and pregnancy complications and developmental problems in infants. Moreover, as the WHO explains, mercury in skin-care products and soap is eventually released into wastewater via your shower or bath, for example, where it can then re-enter the environment and our natural food supply (read: the fish in your sushi roll). This is why pregnant women and new moms often avoid eating fish.
That's why mercury is now banned in some countries
All of these health hazards have led to the banning of mercury by many countries, including all of those that make up the European Union. However, the over-saturated skin-care marketplace, plus sometimes scarce or non-present ingredient lists on the Internet, has made it more or less impossible for global and U.S. agencies to fully monitor the sale of these products. Amazon and eBay both have policies in place to prevent suspicious items from being listed and also encourage customers to contact them with concerns about purchases.
When asked about its policy with these products, eBay gave Allure the following statement: "Consumers can shop eBay's one billion items with confidence, knowing we have key partnerships and processes in place with product manufacturers and regulators to ensure a safe shopping experience." To that end, upon receiving the letter from the EWG and fellow advocacy groups, eBay says the e-retailer removed the items referenced in the report, as they violated eBay's Prescription Drugs policy. To prevent future incidences, eBay says it has implemented filters with the goal of keeping the products identified in the letter from being listed.
Amazon declined to give a comment for this article.
How to avoid purchasing products laced with mercury
So, how can you be certain you're not about to slather a mercury-laden cream all over your face? Well, first of all, be sure to note where your skin-care products actually come from — products that are made in the United States should not contain unsafe levels of mercury, King explains. Before buying, take a minute to look into the product details and find out exactly where a product was manufactured. If it was produced in the Middle East or Asia, do even more digging before you make the purchase.
Another reason that mercury can be hard to spot in your cosmetics is probably because it goes by many names: Hg, mercuric iodide, mercurous chloride, quicksilver, cinnabaris, or hydrargyri oxydum rubrum (say that three times fast), according to the WHO. Products with very high levels of mercury could also appear gray as "mercury color is dark gray itself," says King.
If you are looking for products to target dark spots, King recommends looking for these ingredients instead: vitamin C, licorice extract, and mulberry extract.
That being said, if you believe you have purchased a product formulated with excessive amounts of mercury, toss it. Then make an appointment with your dermatologist, who can better determine a course of action that's right for you.
More skin-care terms to know:
- The The Skin-Care Glossary: A Comprehensive Guide to Everything You Need to Know
- Why Glycerin Is the Ultimate Moisturizing Ingredient in Skin-Care Products
- Cica Is the K-Beauty Ingredient Taking Over Skin Care
Now, see how skin care has evolved within the last 100 years: