FDA Warns of Mercury in Skin Products

Health Letter, October 2016

By Jennifer Rubio

When Americans buy cosmetics and skin products at their local store, they’re generally not concerned about the products being unsafe. But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently put out a warning indicating that some of these products may contain a dangerous substance: mercury. In its July 26, 2016, consumer update, the FDA warns that mercury-containing products — which are often marketed as skin lighteners and anti-aging creams that can remove age spots, freckles, blemishes and wrinkles — may be sold illegally in drugstores and convenience stores.[1]

By inhibiting the formation of melanin, a chemical in the skin that promotes pigmentation, mercury can lighten skin tone,[2] and it is included in some cosmetics for this very reason. Skin products containing mercury may be made in other countries and illegally brought to the U.S. to be sold, or they may be illegally advertised online through social media or mobile apps.[3] When sold in stores, they are usually found in shops catering to ethnic minority populations such as Latino, Asian, African or Middle Eastern communities.[4]

Teenagers sometimes use mercury-containing skin lightening and anti-aging products to treat acne. [5]Mercury is also found in some products marketed as “antiseptic soap.”[6]

Dangers of mercury

Mercury exists in three forms, all of which can be toxic: elemental mercury, inorganic mercury salts and organic mercury.[7] Skin lightening products tend to contain inorganic mercury.[8] Depending on which form of mercury a person is exposed to, poisoning may result from inhalation of vapors, ingestion or absorption through the skin.

Dr. Arthur Simone, a senior FDA medical adviser, emphasized that people who use mercury-containing skin products put not only themselves but also their families in harm’s way. “Your family might breathe mercury vapors released from these products. Your children might touch washcloths or towels that are contaminated with mercury. It could be as simple as touching someone’s cheek or face,” Simone said.[9]

Mercury can have serious effects on the nervous system, including brain damage.[10] The developing brains of fetuses, newborns and young children are particularly susceptible to injury when exposed to mercury.[11] Pregnant women using mercury-containing products may transfer the mercury to the fetus, causing developmental problems.[12] Nursing mothers with mercury also can excrete the toxin in their breast milk, which may cause poisoning of their newborn babies.[13]

Kidney damage is also a major effect of mercury poisoning.[14] Depending on the level of exposure, patients may suffer acute or chronic kidney failure. Mercury poisoning also may cause a condition known as nephrotic syndrome, a disorder characterized by the loss of large amounts of protein in the urine and swelling, which may be isolated to the legs or involve the entire body.[15]

Possible psychological side effects of mercury poisoning include depression, anxiety and psychosis. Additionally, mercury in skin products can cause skin problems such as rashes, discoloration and scarring.[16] Users of these products also are more susceptible to skin infections.[17]

Mercury is highly transmittable. One can be exposed not only through direct contact with contaminated products, but also by breathing contaminated air or eating or drinking contaminated food or water.[18]In the case of mercury-containing skin products, after the products are washed off, the mercury can enter the environment through waterways and contaminate wildlife.[19]

How can I tell if a product has mercury?

Look at the ingredients list on the product label. Words such as “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric” or “mercurio” can indicate the presence of mercury in a product. If there is no ingredient list, don’t assume the product is safe — it is illegal to market a cosmetic product without listing the ingredients on the label.[20] But a product with an ingredient list that does not include mercury still may be dangerous because some companies sell products containing mercury without listing it as an ingredient.[21] Be careful of products where there is no English-language labeling provided; it is also a sign that the product may be marketed illegally.[22]

If the product includes directions to avoid contact with silver, gold, rubber, aluminum or jewelry, this may also indicate the presence of mercury.[23]

How can I tell if I’m being affected, and what should I do?

Signs of mercury poisoning may include psychological changes such as irritability and shyness; changes in vision or hearing; or numbness or tingling in mouth, feet or fingers.[24]

If you come into contact with mercury-contaminated substances, wash your hands and any exposed body parts carefully.[25] Speak with a health care professional or call the Poison Control Center at 800-222-1222.[26] A doctor or health clinic may test your blood or urine to measure mercury levels in your body.[27]

The Environmental Protection Agency requests that mercury-containing products be recycled rather than thrown out, as mercury in landfills may contaminate the ground or water, and incinerated mercury may enter the atmosphere.[28] Before throwing out a mercury-containing product, be sure to seal it in a plastic bag or other container.[29] Your local environmental or waste agency may have further guidelines for disposing of such products.[30]


References

[1] Food and Drug Administration. Mercury Poisoning Linked to Skin Products. Updated July 26, 2016.http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm294849.htm. Accessed September 7, 2016.

[2] World Health Organization. Mercury in Skin Lightening Products. 2011. http://www.who.int/ipcs/assessment/public_health/mercury_flyer.pdf. Accessed September 7, 2016.

[3] Food and Drug Administration. Mercury Poisoning Linked to Skin Products. Updated July 26, 2016.http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm294849.htm. Accessed September 7, 2016.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] World Health Organization. Mercury in Skin Lightening Products. 2011. http://www.who.int/ipcs/assessment/public_health/mercury_flyer.pdf. Accessed September 7, 2016.

[7] Beauchamp G, Kusin S, Gustaf Elinder CG. Mercury toxicity. UpToDate. Updated May 11, 2016.https://www.uptodate.com/contents/mercury-toxicity. Accessed September 10, 2016.

[8] World Health Organization. Mercury in Skin Lightening Products. 2011. http://www.who.int/ipcs/assessment/public_health/mercury_flyer.pdf. Accessed September 7, 2016.

[9] Food and Drug Administration. Mercury Poisoning Linked to Skin Products. Updated July 26, 2016.http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm294849.htm. Accessed September 7, 2016.

[10] World Health Organization. Mercury in Skin Lightening Products. 2011. http://www.who.int/ipcs/assessment/public_health/mercury_flyer.pdf. Accessed September 7, 2016.

[11] Food and Drug Administration. Mercury Poisoning Linked to Skin Products. Updated July 26, 2016.http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm294849.htm. Accessed September 7, 2016.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] World Health Organization. Mercury in Skin Lightening Products. 2011. http://www.who.int/ipcs/assessment/public_health/mercury_flyer.pdf. Accessed September 7, 2016.

[15] Beauchamp G, Kusin S, Gustaf Elinder CG. Mercury toxicity. UpToDate. Updated May 11, 2016.https://www.uptodate.com/contents/mercury-toxicity. Accessed September 10, 2016.

[16] World Health Organization. Mercury in Skin Lightening Products. 2011. http://www.who.int/ipcs/assessment/public_health/mercury_flyer.pdf. Accessed September 7, 2016.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry. Toxic Substances Portal — Mercury. March 1999. http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/PHS/PHS.asp?id=112&tid=24. Accessed September 7, 2016.

[19] World Health Organization. Mercury in Skin Lightening Products. 2011. http://www.who.int/ipcs/assessment/public_health/mercury_flyer.pdf. Accessed September 7, 2016.

[20] Food and Drug Administration. Mercury Poisoning Linked to Skin Products. Updated July 26, 2016.http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm294849.htm. Accessed September 7, 2016.

[21] World Health Organization. Mercury in Skin Lightening Products. 2011. http://www.who.int/ipcs/assessment/public_health/mercury_flyer.pdf. Accessed September 7, 2016.

[22] Food and Drug Administration. Mercury Poisoning Linked to Skin Products. Updated July 26, 2016.http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm294849.htm. Accessed September 7, 2016.

[23] World Health Organization. Mercury in Skin Lightening Products. 2011. http://www.who.int/ipcs/assessment/public_health/mercury_flyer.pdf. Accessed September 7, 2016.

[24] Food and Drug Administration. Mercury Poisoning Linked to Skin Products. Updated July 26, 2016.http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm294849.htm. Accessed September 7, 2016.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Beauchamp G, Kusin S, Gustaf Elinder CG. Mercury toxicity. UpToDate. Updated May 11, 2016.https://www.uptodate.com/contents/mercury-toxicity. Accessed September 10, 2016.

[28] Environmental Protection Agency. Mercury in Consumer Products. Updated July 7, 2016. https://www.epa.gov/mercury/mercury- consumer-products. Accessed September 7, 2016.

[29] Food and Drug Administration. Mercury Poisoning Linked to Skin Products. Updated July 26, 2016.http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm294849.htm. Accessed September 7, 2016.

[30] Ibid.