Here’s something that you should not take lightly: skin-lightening creams. Such creams can contain mercury, and the results of smearing mercury on your skin may not be very pretty. In fact, a case report recently published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) showed how they can be devastating.
The case report chronicled what happened to a 47-year-old Mexican-American woman after regularly applying a skin-lightening cream to her face twice-a-day for seven years. In July 2019, she sought medical care after experiencing funny sensations and weakness in her arms. Things quickly got worse as her symptoms progressed to slurred speech, blurred vision, and difficulty walking, which soon landed her in the hospital where she eventually became delirious.
Testing found high levels of mercury in both her blood and urine. Testing also revealed that her skin-lightening cream that she had obtained from Mexico contained 12,000 ppm of mercury. Chelation therapy did not reverse her symptoms, as she was left unable to talk or take of herself to the point that she’s relied on a feeding tube to get nourishment.
This is a tragic reminder that you don’t want mercury rising in your body. You don’t even want mercury to be touching any part of your body. It can mess up your skin, causing rashes, discoloration and scarring, as well as making your skin more susceptible to infections. When mercury gets inside your body, it can wreak havoc, damaging your kidneys and nervous system, including your brain. Furthermore, during pregnancy, mercury in your body can lead to birth defects.
Therefore, if you see the word “mercury” on the label of anything that you are using, unless it is a Queen album, stop using it immediately. Make sure that you thoroughly wash your hands and any body part that touched the product, seal the product in a leak-proof container, and contact your doctor as soon as possible.
So if mercury can be so toxic, what the heck is it doing in skin-lightening creams? Well, mercury salts can stop the formation of melanin, which is the pigment that makes your skin darker. So, yes, if you are dead set on lightening your skin, so to speak, mercury can be effective in doing so.
These qualities have led to the use of mercury in a number of “anti-aging” or “skin lightening” products, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned in 2016. The warning did say that such products “usually are manufactured abroad and sold illegally in the United States, often in shops catering to the Latino, Asian, African, or Middle Eastern communities. They are promoted online on social media sites and sold through mobile apps.”
Looks like there is quite a market for those with darker-skin colors who want to “whiten” their skin color. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 25% of women in Mali, 77% in Nigeria, 27% in Senegal, 35% in South Africa and 59% in Togo regularly use skin-lightening products. Then there are the 40% of women in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines and the Republic of Korea, based on a 2004 survey. Skin-lightening products constitute 61% of the dermatological market in India.
Mercury isn’t just a problem for those smearing it on their skin. Such mercury-containing products can produce mercury-containing vapors that can then be inhaled by anyone who happens to be around. Moreover, what do you think happens to the mercury when the product is washed off or thrown in the trash? It ends up in what people often treat like a giant toilet bowl, the environment. And what ends up in the environment can eventually end up in food and thus in your mouth.