Skin-whitening creams in Pakistan contain mercury which leads to kidney damage, rashes, scarring and even anxiety, depression or psychosis, the WHO has warned.
Recently, the health department in Dubai blacklisted one beauty cream for having mercury. Multiple Pakistani researchers have published papers on the high levels of mercury and other harmful chemicals in these skin-whitening products. Their findings have been published in the Journal of Pakistan Association of Dermatologists.
Mercury salts inhibit the formation of melanin, resulting in a lighter skin tone.
If you buy and use skin-whitening creams you should know that the concentration of mercury in it may be printed on the label or packaging but often they are not. Look for these words:
Amide chloride of mercury
Cinnabaris (mercury sulfide)
Hydrargyri oxydum rubrum (mercury oxide)
Mercury iodide or “poison”
If the box carries directions to avoid letting the cream come in contact with your jewelry (silver, gold) and rubber and aluminum, that is a clear sign there is mercury. Be warned that companies selling products that contain mercury do not always list it as an ingredient.
Do not use any product without a label or a list of ingredients. US law, for example, requires that ingredients be listed on the label of any cosmetic or drug. Do not use a foreign product unless the label also describes ingredients in English.
Consumer protection agencies in the European Union and US have identified products with mercury that are made in Pakistan, China, the US, Thailand, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Mexico, the Philippines. So some of them may be local and some may be imported. Do not be fooled that a foreign product could be safer.
Skin-lightening products come as soaps and creams. Watch out for soaps often sold as “antiseptic soap”. The soaps contain approximately 1% to 3% mercury iodide, and the creams are composed of 1% to 10% mercury ammonium. Some soaps tested to show that they had mercury up to 31 mg/kg. Some creams had concentrations as high as 33 000 mg/kg.
One way to tell very high levels of mercury contamination is if the product is grey or cream coloured.
Watch out also for mercury in other cosmetics, such as eye makeup cleansing products and mascara.
Mercury in soaps, creams and other cosmetic products is eventually discharged into wastewater. The mercury then enters the environment, where it becomes methylated and enters the food-chain as the highly toxic methylmercury in fish. Pregnant women who eat fish containing methylmercury transfer the mercury to their unborn children, which can later result in neurodevelopmental deficits in the children.
You can get a blood or urine test to tell how much inorganic mercury you have been exposed to.