Mercury Warning for Some Skin Creams

It’s said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers to check the ingredients of the beauty creams they are holding for toxic levels of mercury.

The warning applies to creams intended to lighten the skin, fade away freckles and age spots and heal acne. Some of the lotions that have an illegal amount of mercury will turn green or grey when exposed to light.

“There are an overwhelming number of over-the-counter products, most of which make claims that are unsubstantiated. Not only do they do no good, but, as seen with creams containing mercury, they can be harmful,” said Judith Crowell, M.D., a dermatologist affiliated with the Baptist Health Quality Network. “It’s best to ask your dermatologist what products he or she recommends for your personalized skin care regimen.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if mercury is absorbed into the body, it can cause several health problems. Initial symptoms of mercury poisoning include irritability and mood swings, insomnia, headaches, weakness and tremors.  Because these signs can be subtle and mimic other health conditions, it can be difficult to correlate them to mercury at first.

Long-term health effects of mercury poisoning can include permanent damage to the brain, nervous system and kidneys. When used over a long period, mercury vapor can be released into the environment and affect other people in the area exposed to it.  Developing fetuses and young infants are especially susceptible to the effects of mercury. They can suffer brain damage and developmental delays if exposed to toxic levels of the chemical.

Many of the creams containing unsafe levels of mercury are entering the United States illegally after being purchased in Latin American, Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries, says the FDA. The agency says skin-lightening and anti-aging creams are the most common product types that contain the high levels of mercury.

The FDA advises consumers to check cream, lotion and soap labels for any of these ingredients:

  • Mercurous chloride
  • Calomel
  • Mercuric
  • Mercurio
  • Mercury

Any product containing one of these ingredients is unsafe for human use. To get rid of a product containing one of these ingredients, place it in a sealed plastic bag or water-proof container. Then contact the local environmental health department to find out how to properly dispose of the toxic waste.

There are other ingredients in creams, lotions and soaps that Dr. Crowell says should be avoided, especially for those who have sensitive skin.

“Although not harmful, alpha hydroxyl acids, alcohol and retinols can be irritating to those with sensitive skin,” she said.

Blood or urine tests can determine the levels of mercury in the body. If you think you’ve come in contact with mercury, call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

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