NEW YORK—The use of a “skin-lightening” cream recently poisoned a New York City resident, prompting the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) and the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) to issue a public warning about the product to consumers and merchants.
The City warned consumers to stay away from “skin-lightening” creams and similar soaps or products containing mercury. Upon further investigation, DOHMH found almost a dozen products throughout the city made in the Dominican Republic, Hong Kong and China that do not conform to FDA regulations.
The resident identified with mercury poisoning was using a “skin-lightening” cream from the Dominican Republic called Recetas de la Farmacia - Crema Blanqueadora, used for acne, skin blemishes, and freckles. The product contained 6,000 parts per million (ppm) of mercury, despite FDA regulations which limit mercury to 1 ppm. The patient is currently under medical care.
The cream used by the patient was manufactured and purchased in the Dominican Republic. Many “skin-lightening” products are used throughout the world, including the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America despite their confirmed health risks. The products are often illegally imported into the United States. DOHMH has found five products made in the Dominican Republic and sold in the United States labeled as containing mercury. They also found six other products from Hong Kong, China and the Dominican Republic unlabeled. Government officials in the Dominican Republic are working closely with DOHMH to halt the manufacture and distribution of these products.
Mercury is a prominent ingredient in this cream. (nyc.gov)
Knowledge of the toxic level of mercury found in “skin-lightening” creams has been known since the 1970’s. Kenya alone passed three legal notices between 1998 and 2000 banning the use of the creams. The FDA tightly regulates the amount of mercury in cosmetic products and stipulates that “ingredients declaration must be conspicuous so that it is likely to be read at the time of purchase.” Unfortunately, many of the products are not labeled, or the contents are hidden under a less-well-known name. An outbreak of three cases in the Southwest in 1996 was due to the Mexican product “Crema de Belleza-Manning.” The product listed mercury in Spanish as “calomel,” or a salt of mercury, making it almost impossible to detect.
In a press conference at the end of January, DOHMH Commissioner Thomas Frieden said, "We urge New Yorkers not to use imported products if there are no ingredients on the label, or if a product lists mercury as an ingredient. Mercury is poisonous and can cause severe damage to the nervous system.”
According to the EPA, Mercury is linked to kidney, nervous system, and gastrointestinal disorders. Prolonged contact with Mercury also leads to skin rashes, mood swings, memory loss, and muscle weakness. A Saudi test in 2000 found signs of disease in the brain, liver, and kidney of all mice treated with a “skin-whitening” cream containing mercury, even among those treated once a week, with an increase in disease corresponding to the number of applications. Mercury exposure to the womb is especially harmful, causing nervous system and brain damage to the developing baby. It is linked to neurological effects such as language, fine motor skills, memory, and cognitive thinking.
These results are frightening, considering that manufacturers advertise daily, or more, application and suggest their use to cover up skin discolorations caused by pregnancy.
“Skin-whitening” cream, says one product from France, Active Cosmetics, “lightens your complexion and eliminates ugly spots and accumulated impurities, leaving the skin with an even glow.” Other products suggest its use for any discoloration due to age, wrinkles, freckles or sun spots.