Whatever your complexion, it’s important to use products that will help your skin and not damage it. But as you wade through the beauty aisles, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cautions that you should avoid skin creams, beauty and antiseptic soaps, and lotions that contain mercury.
How will you know if mercury’s in the cosmetic, especially one that’s marketed as “anti-aging” or “skin lightening”? Check the label. If the words “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric,” “mercurio,” or “mercury” are listed on the label, mercury’s in it—and you should stop using the product immediately.
The products are usually marketed as skin lighteners and anti-aging treatments that remove age spots, freckles, blemishes, and wrinkles. Adolescents may use these products as acne treatments.
Jason Humbert of FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs says these 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. Consumers may also have bought them in another country and brought them back to the U.S. for personal use, he adds.
If the ingredients aren’t listed and there is no product label, don’t assume it’s fine. Federal law requires that ingredients be listed on the label of any cosmetic or nonprescription drug, so do not use a product that doesn’t have a label. In addition, don’t use drugs or cosmetics labeled in languages other than English unless English labeling is also provided. That’s also a sign that the product may be marketed illegally.
“Even though these products are often promoted as cosmetics, they also may be unapproved new drugs under the law,” says Linda Katz, M.D., director of FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors. FDA does not allow mercury in drugs or in cosmetics, except under very specific conditions where there are no other safe and effective preservatives available – conditions that these products do not meet.
Sellers and distributors who market mercury-containing skin whitening or lightening creams in the U.S. may be subject to enforcement action, including seizure of products, injunctions, and, in some situations, criminal prosecution.
Exposure to mercury can have serious health consequences. The danger isn’t just to people who use mercury-containing products but also to their families, says Arthur Simone, M.D., a senior medical advisor at FDA.
“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 says.
Some people – including pregnant women, nursing babies and young children – are especially vulnerable to mercury toxicity, he adds. Babies may be particularly sensitive to the harm mercury can cause to their developing brains and nervous systems. Newborns who nurse are vulnerable because mercury is passed into breast milk.
In the past few years, FDA and state health officials have discovered numerous products that contain mercury, and there have been cases in which people exposed to such products have had mercury poisoning or elevated levels of mercury in their bodies. FDA has an import alert in place that lets our field staff know that the agency has enough evidence or other information to refuse admission of shipments of mercury-containing skin products.
But this is only a partial solution, Humbert says.
“Many of these products are coming into the country through illegal channels,” he says. “That’s why it’s so important for consumers and sellers to know about the dangers of possible mercury poisoning associated with the use of these skin products.”
Thoroughly wash your hands and other parts of your body that have come in contact with products that contain mercury.
Contact your health care professional or a medical care clinic for advice. If you have questions, call your health care professional or the Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222; it is open 24 hours a day.
Before throwing out a product that may contain mercury, seal it in a plastic bag or leak-proof container. Check with your local environmental, health, or solid waste agency for disposal instructions. Some communities have special collections or other options for disposing of hazardous household waste.
This article appears on FDA's Consumer Update page, which features the latest on all FDA-regulated products.
Published: March 6, 2012
Updated: July 26, 2016