She had been buying face cream through a friend of a friend for 12 years. This time, it was Pond’s “Rejuveness,” a version of the company’s anti-wrinkle cream that is made and sold in Mexico.
But someone in the Mexican state of Jalisco had laced the cream with a toxic skin-lightening compound, and it had a devastating effect on the 47-year-old Sacramento resident.
The face cream that sickened the Sacramento woman was tampered with after manufacture, but some other skin-lightening products made overseas intentionally contain mercury as an active ingredient, said Bhavna Shamasunder, an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles who studies skin-lightening cosmetics. While mercury removes skin pigmentation, Shamasunder said, the side effects are toxic.
Pond’s, owned by the international consumer products giant Unilever, said it doesn’t use mercury in its products. It encourages consumers to buy their products only from authorized retailers to avoid tampering. The company said it is working with authorities to investigate the Sacramento woman’s case.
While it is illegal to sell cosmetics in the United States with more than 1 part per million (ppm) of mercury—except eye products, which can have up to 65—the Food and Drug Administration can’t keep up with the imports, whether they’re shipped, tucked into suitcases, or purchased online.
Nor does it have the regulatory power to enforce recalls or require preapproval of cosmetic products and ingredients before they’re sold, Shamasunder said.
“The FDA has extremely poor oversight over our beauty products,” she said. “The burden of proof is on the consumer to get sick first.”
The FDA declined to comment on the record for this story.
Products made outside the United States aren’t subject to the same standards as U.S.-made ones and may contain poisonous chemicals, like mercury, or have higher proportions of potentially dangerous ingredients, such as steroids.
It’s difficult to estimate how many people have been affected by mercury poisoning from cosmetics because screening for the heavy metal isn't routine, said Tracey Woodruff, a professor of reproductive sciences at the University of California–San Francisco.
Often, victims of poisoning get their spiked products from people they trust, Woodruff said.
“A family member gave it to her, so it was a trusted source of information,” Woodruff said.
In the Sacramento woman’s case, the contaminated face cream contained a methylmercury concentration of more than 12,000 ppm. The level of methylmercury in her blood was 2,630 micrograms per liter, according to Sacramento County Public Health. Normal values are less than 5.
It’s unclear whether the FDA could have done anything to prevent her poisoning, said Melanie Benesh, legislative attorney for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
“Right now, the FDA is really flying blind,” she said.
So it’s up to public health officials to catch poisoning cases as they happen and then trace their way back to the source.
In California, state public health officials are developing a campaign to educate shopkeepers and consumers. They also train volunteer community health workers like Sandra Garcia to meet with families to discuss the symptoms of mercury poisoning.
Garcia, who lives in Tulare County and picks and packs grapes for a living, estimates that she has purchased creams from 40 stores to send to public health officials for testing since March. And she has visited 60 homes to hand out brochures and help residents identify poisonous products.
“There are people that get angry and say that the cream is good and that nothing bad has happened to them,” she said. “But the majority of people are frightened and give me their creams.”
Leads on retailers that sell mercury-laced products may be handed over to law enforcement for potential follow-up, said California Department of Health spokesman Corey Egel.
Public health officials recommend consumers avoid buying cosmetics at swap meets and flea markets, and check that products are properly sealed and labeled.
At a discount store near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, shop worker Lili Garcia dismissed the notion that consumers should avoid skin creams manufactured abroad.
She sells unopened jars of Pond’s Rejuveness cream from Mexico for $5 and $10, depending on the size, while Target lists U.S. versions for $8 and $15, respectively.
Garcia, who uses the same cream herself, said she had heard about the Sacramento woman on the news and felt sorry for her. But she said it’s up to consumers to check that products are sealed; beyond that, there isn’t much else they can do.
“Well, the buyer buys the product, and they don’t know what’s inside,” she said.