Featured,  Health,  Science,  Toxic Exposure

Skin Lightening Cosmetics and Mercury Toxicity

By Roberta Attanasio

Skin lightening cosmetics are popular in many regions of the world — they’re used to lighten darker skin because of their ability to inhibit production of melanin, the substance that gives the skin its color. The active ingredients in some of these cosmetics often include toxic chemicals, as for example hydroquinone, fluorinated corticosteroid and inorganic mercury.


Photo Credit: Jennifergaglione, made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

The World Health Organization (WHO) provides interesting facts about the global use of skin lightening cosmetics. In India, 61% of the dermatological market consists of skin lightening products. In Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Togo, 25%, 77%, 27%, 35% and 59% of women, respectively, are reported to use skin lightening products on a regular basis. In 2004, nearly 40% of women surveyed in China (Province of Taiwan and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region), Malaysia, the Philippines and the Republic of Korea reported using skin lighteners.

Exposure to inorganic mercury contained in skin lightening cosmetics may result in serious and life threatening adverse effects. According to a British Medical Journal editorial, these cosmetics are used on a large body surface area for long periods of time and, in many instances, by people that live under hot and humid tropical conditions, which promote absorption through the skin. Therefore, inorganic mercury accumulates in a variety of organs and tissues.

The WHO states: “The main adverse effect of the inorganic mercury contained in skin lightening soaps and creams is kidney damage. Mercury in skin lightening products may also cause skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring, as well as a reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections. Other effects include anxiety, depression or psychosis and peripheral neuropathy.”

In a Consumer Update (Mercury poisoning linked to skin products) by the U.S. Food and Drug administration (FDA), toxicologist Mike Bolger, Ph.D. says “People—particularly children—can get mercury in their bodies from breathing in mercury vapors if a member of the household uses a skin cream containing mercury. Infants and small children can ingest mercury if they touch their parents who have used these products, get cream on their hands and then put their hands and fingers into their mouth, which they are prone to do.”

A report published in 2010 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) entitled “Mercury Exposure Among Household Users and Nonusers of Skin-Lightening Creams Produced in Mexico — California and Virginia, 2010” linked skin-lightening creams manufactured in Mexico to cases of mercury contamination affecting five households in California and Virginia. In total, fifteen out of twenty-two household members showed evidence of mercury poisoning, including six with no history of using the creams. Exposure likely occurred because of absorption of mercury through the skin and inhalation of mercury vapors generated by these creams. Among young children, contact with contaminated household items and with the skin of adults using the creams might have contributed to nondietary ingestion via hand-to-mouth behavior. Furthermore, breastfeeding might have contributed to exposure.

Mercury-containing skin lightening cosmetics have been banned in many countries. However, some of these products are still available to consumers. As stated by the WHO, public awareness needs to be raised regarding the types of products and the specific products that contain mercury and the risks associated with mercury exposure. In addition, it should be pointed out that skin lightening products that do not contain mercury may contain other hazardous substances.


  • mgnd88

    I believe in India it’s called the “fairness industry”….. I hope they find non-toxic substitutes so people that want to use these things can do so without risks to their health.

  • HollanderGuy

    There is too much pressure on some people about using things like these, my understanding is that many people are actually aware that whitening your skin may make you sick, it’s just that they accept it as part of the deal, meaning they accept the consequences of their beauty routine or what they think their beauty routine should be.

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