CNN and other media have flagged a recent study published by the Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) finding that 129 of some 271 skin brightening products it tested contain high levels of mercury. This is raising alarm over the safety of skin brightening products, especially considering the products of concern are sold globally through e-commerce platforms such as eBay, Amazon and Alibaba.
Most of the products sampled were manufactured in Asia, especially in Pakistan (43%), Thailand (8%), China (6%) and Taiwan (4%), according to their packaging.
ZMWG is a coalition of more than 110 public interest environmental and health non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It was formed in 2005 by the European Environmental Bureau and the Mercury Policy Project. ZMWG published the study on the European Environmental Bureau's (EEB's) website. Cosmetics & Toiletries sought additional references but according to one spokesperson, the study has not yet been submitted for peer review.
Between 2017 and 2022, ZMWG reports it conducted three separate investigations, each time "confirming continued global access to illegal, high mercury skin lightening products." The group noted most of the products sampled were manufactured in Asia, especially in Pakistan (43%), Thailand (8%), China (6%) and Taiwan (4%), according to their packaging.
See archived: Toxicological Evaluation of Cosmetics; A Primer
According to the study, the products were tested in an accredited laboratory in the EU, after being screened using x-ray fluorescence in three regional hubs: CASE in Côte d’Ivoire (for Africa), Ban Toxics in the Philippines (for Asia) and in Antigua and Barbuda (for Latin America and the Caribbean). Forty-seven percent of the products tested reportedly contained more than the permitted level of mercury. Some contained > 10,000 ppm; others were > 50,000 ppm. CNN noted that in 2013, the Minamata convention set an international limit for cosmetics of 1 mg/kg of mercury, or 1 part per million (ppm) (excluding eye area cosmetics), which came into force in 2021.
In relation, in November 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also flagged skin care products for mercury content. It stated, "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."
See archived: FDA Cracks Down on Skin Lighteners
The agency continued, "[The] 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. Many of these products are coming into the country through illegal channels. 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."