The implicated products were sold as skin-lightening agents, although they may also be used as skin-smoothing products. MDH tested 27 samples of the products, including 23 creams and four soaps. All of the samples were collected in the Twin Cities by staff from Saint Paul-Ramsey County Public Health.
Eleven of the skin creams contained mercury, at levels ranging from 135 to 33,000 parts per million (ppm). Under federal law, most cosmetics – including skin-lightening products – can contain no more than “trace” amounts of less than one ppm, and only if it is impossible to avoid adding it during the manufacturing process.
Although skin-lightening products may be applied to broad areas of the skin, they may also be applied in smaller amounts to specific sites or spots on the skin. Consumers are being advised to stop all use of these products if they can’t be sure the products are mercury-free.
Consumers are also being urged not to dispose of skin products that may contain mercury as normal trash. Instead, they should be taken to a disposal site that accepts household hazardous waste. A statewide list of disposal sites is available on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) website.
Consumers with concerns about the use of skin-lightening products can call the Minnesota Poison Control System at 1-800-222-1222. It is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it offers language interpretation services. Users of the products are also being encouraged to contact the poison center with information about where the products were purchased.
A broad variety of skin-lightening products is available for sale, and MDH officials emphasized that they were only able to test a limited number of them. It may not always be possible to tell whether a particular skin-lightening product contains mercury, so skin-lighteners should always be used with caution.
At a minimum, consumers should make sure that:
the product they are using has an ingredient list and
mercury is not listed as an ingredient.
Officials cautioned that mercury may appear on product labels under several different names. Consumers should check for anything that includes the words “calomel,” “mercuric,” “mercurous” or “mercurio.”
Proper disposal of products that contain mercury is especially important, according to MPCA officials. Mercury is a toxic pollutant. If it is released to the land or waters of Minnesota , further human exposure may result.
MPCA is notifying retailers to stop selling skin products that may contain mercury. It is illegal in Minnesota to sell or distribute cosmetics, toiletries or fragrances containing mercury, and MPCA has begun an investigation into the sale of these products. The agency will be taking enforcement action as necessary. It is not illegal for consumers to buy or possess these products.
Retailers, distributors, and other businesses are required by law to use hazardous-waste disposal options approved by MPCA if they have stocks of these products they wish to dispose of.
The skin-lightening products tested by the MDH lab were obtained from retailers who primarily serve the African, Asian, Latino and Middle Eastern communities in the Twin Cities. However, MDH officials emphasized that use of these products is not limited to those groups. All segments of the population are potential users of the products, and all parts of the state are potentially affected, they said.
When applied to the skin, mercury from these products can readily be absorbed by the body. Other states have reported finding elevated levels of mercury in the blood and urine of people who use mercury-containing skin creams.
The primary concern with exposure to mercury in skin creams is the potential effect on the kidneys, officials said.
Exposure to high levels of mercury, or exposure over a long period of time, can raise additional concerns. Long term or high level exposure can affect the nervous system, or cause pain or rash symptoms in the hands and feet of infants and young children.
Unborn babies and young children are especially sensitive to mercury. Even when pregnant women do not show symptoms from mercury exposure, it can affect their unborn children.
Anyone who suspects they have symptoms of mercury exposure should call the poison center at 1-800-222-1222, officials said. However, the best treatment is simply to stop using the skin creams, and eliminate the source of exposure. The mercury will be eliminated naturally from the body over time.
More information about mercury and skin-lightening products is available on the MDH website.