EPA Warns of High Mercury Levels in Skin-Lightening Creams

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The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is warning against skin-lightening creams that may contain dangerous levels of mercury. The agency cites recent investigations of imported beauty products by the Chicago Tribune and health officials in New York City, California and Virginia, which found high levels of the toxin in many creams made overseas.

The Tribune investigation analyzed 50 skin-lightening products and found five made in Asian countries that were high in mercury and sold in the Chicago area. (More on Time.com: Consumer Reports Warns Pregnant Women Against Canned Tuna)

The Illinois EPA wrote in a recent fact sheet for retailers:

Do not sell or distribute any cream or cosmetic that lists any of the following on the label: “mercury,” “mercurio,” “calomel,” or mercury compounds such as “mercurous chloride.” It also makes sense to take special precautions when dealing with imported cosmetic products. Do not sell imported skin lightening creams if there is no label on the container, or if there are no ingredients printed on the product’s box or container.

Prolonged mercury exposure can cause damage to the nervous system, kidneys and brain. Other effects include skin rash and diminished vision. Mercury poisoning is particularly dangerous to young children and fetuses, leading to brain damage and developmental delays. (More on Time.com: Study: BPA Exposure May Reduce Chances of IVF)

The Illinois EPA fact sheet finds:

Mercury or mercury salts may be used as an active ingredient in skin-lightening products to “lighten” the complexion or to remove “blotchy” spots. Public health interviews in New York City have indicated that some people apply skin lightening creams to large portions of their body (e.g., backs, face and neck, arms and legs), with great frequency (e.g., twice daily) and for long periods of time (e.g., several years).

Beauty products containing mercury have been a problem for some time: Minnesota was the first state to ban skin-lightening creams, mascara, eyeliner and other cosmetics with mercury in 2008.

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