Mercury has been discovered in an abundant amount of personal care products — including lotions, cosmetics, anti-aging creams, acne treatments, skin lighteners, antiseptic and beauty soaps. Mercury is extremely toxic — and exposure can lead to serious health consequences.
It’s important to use cosmetics and skin care products that will help your skin — not damage it. But for your safety, health, and well-being, it’s also critical to avoid personal care products that contain mercury.
In the last few years, mercury has been found in an increasing number of personal care products. Fortunately, there’s ways to avoid these toxic products — if you know what to look for. Here’s more on what to know — and what to look for.
Dangers of Mercury in Personal Care Products
Mercury exposure can cause serious health consequences. It can damage the brain, lungs, kidney, heart, and immune system of people of all ages.
The danger of mercury exposure isn’t just to people using products containing this chemical. Families and pets of people using these products can suffer unpleasant and debilitating health conditions, as well
Arthur Simone, M.D., senior medical advisor at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clarifies how families become exposed.
“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.”
Some people — including pregnant women, nursing babies, and young children — are particularly susceptible to mercury toxicity. A baby may be particularly sensitive to the harm this toxic chemical can cause to their developing brains and nervous systems. And newborns who nurse are vulnerable because the chemical is passed into breast milk.
In the last few years, the FDA and state health officials have discovered an increasing number of personal care products that contain mercury. There have been cases where people exposed to these personal care products have had mercury poisoning or elevated levels of the chemical in their bodies.
Gordon Vrdoljak, Ph.D., of the California Department of Public Health, offers the following warning in an American Chemical Society press release.
“In the U.S., the limit on mercury in products is 1 part per million. In some of these creams, we’ve been finding levels as high as 210,000 parts per million — really substantial amounts of mercury. If people are using the product quite regularly, their hands will exude it, it will get in their food, on their counter-tops, on the sheets their kids sleep on.”
Jason Humbert of FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs adds that these toxic products are usually manufactured overseas — then illegally sold in the United States. They’re found in shops that cater to the African, Asian, Latino, or Middle Eastern communities.
Social media sites promote them online. Toxic personal care products are also sold through mobile apps. Some consumers visiting other countries may buy cosmetics or personal care products containing mercury — then bring the products back to the U.S. for personal use.
It’s highly recommended that you don’t assume a personal care product is fine — especially if the ingredients are not listed and there is no product label. Federal law mandates 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. Additionally, don’t use cosmetics labeled in languages other than English — unless English labeling is also provided. The FDA warns that’s also a sign that the product may be marketed illegally.
Humbert adds some additional advice to consumers.
“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.”
Checking the label is a proven way to find out if mercury is in a personal care product. If the words “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric,” “mercurio,” or “mercury” are listed on the label; then the toxin is in the product. You should stop using the product immediately.
Most of all, be cautious of personal care products marketed as skin lighteners and anti-aging treatments that remove age spots, wrinkles, blemishes, and freckles. And acne treatments products are questionable, as well
Symptoms of Exposure
High exposure to inorganic mercury may result in damage to the gastrointestinal tract, the nervous system, and the kidneys. It is absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract and affects other systems through this route.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says outside the U.S., inorganic mercury is used in making cosmetic skin creams.
The CDC notes how long-term exposure of this toxin is harmful to humans.
“If repeatedly eaten or applied to the skin over long period of time, some inorganic mercury compounds can cause effects similar to what is seen with long term mercury vapor exposure, including neurological disturbances, memory problems, skin rash, and kidney abnormalities.”
Symptoms of exposure include the following:
- skin rashes and dermatitis
- mood swings
- memory loss
- mental disturbances
- muscle weakness
Protect Yourself and Family
It’s important to thoroughly wash your hands and other parts of your body that have come in contact with personal care products that contain mercury.
You should also contact your health care professional or a medical care clinic for more advice. And if you’re concerned and have questions, call your health care professional or the Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222. The Poison Center is open 24 hours a day.
Furthermore, before you throw out a product that may contain mercury the FDA advises to seal it in a plastic bag or leak-proof container. For additional support, check with your local environmental, health, or solid waste agency for instructions on how to dispose the material.
Some communities have special collections or other options for disposing hazardous household waste — including personal care products that contain mercury.