Skin-bleaching: got mercury?
May27

Skin-bleaching: got mercury?

The Minnesota Health Department yesterday issued a warning that skin-lightening cosmetic products sold in the area contain concentrations of inorganic mercury high enough to warrant their disposal as hazardous chemical waste. Details on the warning can be found in this Star Tribune article by Maura Lerner with intern Alejandra Matos (hurray for summer student interns!). State technicians tested 27 products, including 23 creams and four soaps, and found that 11 had mercury levels ranging from 135 to 33,000 parts per million. Federal law permits only “trace amounts,” less than 1 part per million. Ramsey County officials said they became suspicious about the lightening creams when a staffer came across a blog about the mercury dangers. The staffer, who worked with immigrant groups, knew the creams were popular among Somalis and others and thought it was worth checking out, said Zachary Hansen, the county’s director of environmental health. Skin-lightening creams are popular in African nations as well as in some Asian cultures. A truly excellent 2008 review from a group of clinical dermatologists at the University of Lagos College of Medicine appeared in the International Journal of Dermatology. The authors present therein some of the reasons why dark-skinned individuals might use such products: Some of these are to look more attractive; to go with existing fashion trend; to treat skin blemishes like acne or melasma; to cleanse or “tone” the face and body; or to satisfy the taste of ones spouse. Although the men also use the products for the above reasons, some of them claimed they use the creams because their wives use them; and some male marketers of female cosmetics and toiletries claim they use the products to advertise their wares. Some of the men are homosexuals. The habit of bleaching the skin is most rampant among commercial sex workers who camouflage their occupation in the clinic data as “fashion designer” because of the opprobium attached to prostitution. It is noteworthy that even some people who are naturally fair in complexion, still use the bleaching creams to “maintain” the light skin color and prevent tanning or blotches from sunlight. Currently, the Minnesota warning has not yet been associated with any illnesses or toxicity events. However, mercury-containing skin-lightening creams have been associated with typical, inorganic mercury nephrotic syndromes as early as this 1972 BMJ report from Nairobi where the disease was most commonly seen in “young sophisticated African women.” But the risks associated with these skin-bleaching creams are not only due to mercury. More commonly, these products employ hydroquinone (benzene-1,4-diol). A naturally-occurring antiseptic compound – and carcinogenic hepatotoxin – found in the herbal product, uva ursi or bearberry, hydroquinone...

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