Certain Skin Lightening Creams May be Tainted with Toxic Methyl Mercury, CDC Warns

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is warning that certain products used to lighten skin may contain high levels of methyl mercury, which is poisonous to humans. The CDC issued the warning on December 20, after reviewing a case study involving a 47-year-old California woman who was hospitalized with severe damage to her nervous system and fell into a coma after reportedly using a skin lightening cream imported from Mexico. If you or someone you know has suffered mercury poisoning from a contaminated skin cream or another consumer product, contact a reputable product liability lawyer as soon as possible. The manufacturers of skin creams and other cosmetics have a duty to ensure that their products are not hazardous to consumer health and should be held accountable for any illnesses caused by their products.

Consumer Products Containing Mercury

On its website, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that some commercial products, including certain skin lightening creams, contain mercury and are not safe for use. “Most skin creams do not contain mercury compounds,” the EPA notes. “Those that do are generally imported from outside the U.S. and are sold as skin lightening or freckle creams. Do not use [any] skin cream that contains mercury as this can lead to skin rashes or poisoning because mercury can be absorbed through the skin.” The skin cream used by the hospitalized California woman was Pond’s Rejuveness from Mexico, which had been tainted with methyl mercury after manufacturing. According to the patient’s family members, she had applied the cream to her skin twice per day over the past seven years.

According to the CDC, contaminated skin lightening creams typically contain inorganic mercury, prolonged exposure to which can cause memory problems, skin rash, kidney abnormalities and neurological disturbances. An analysis of the cream conducted by the California Department of Public Health, however, identified a possible match with methylmercury iodide, an organic mercury compound that is far more toxic than inorganic mercury. Upon testing the skin lightening cream used by the California woman, officials found that it contained 12,000 parts per million mercury content, which is 200 times the legal limit of 60 parts per million established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for food, drugs and cosmetics. According to the CDC warning, this is the first known case of a skin lightening cream being contaminated with methyl mercury. The agency is investigating the source of the methyl mercury contamination and is screening other samples of skin lightening creams for mercury.

Symptoms of Mercury Poisoning

Exposure to mercury can have severe health consequences, not only to those who use mercury-containing products, but also to their loved ones. “Your family might breathe mercury vapors released from these products,” says Arthur Simone, M.D. a senior medical advisor at the FDA. “Your children might touch washcloths or towels that are contaminated with mercury. It could be as simple as touching someone’s cheek or face.” In fact, a family member of the California woman who was hospitalized with mercury poisoning was also exposed to the skin lightening cream and presented with a less severe illness. Some signs and symptoms of mercury poisoning include the following:

  • Tremors
  • Irritability
  • Memory problems
  • Depression
  • Changes in vision or hearing
  • Shyness
  • Depression
  • Numbness and tingling in the hands, feet or around the mouth

The hallmark of exposure organic mercury is central nervous system toxicity, which typically occurs after weeks to months of exposure, “progresses rapidly after onset, worsens despite cessation of further exposure, persists even with chelation (although mercury excretion might increase), and leaves profound residual impairment,” the CDC reports.

According to the CDC’s case report, the California woman visited her primary care physician in July 2019, after experiencing a prickling sensation and weakness in her arms. When she returned to her doctor two weeks later with blurry vision, slurred speech and gait unsteadiness, she was rushed to the hospital, where her condition rapidly declined “to an agitated delirium.” Screening blood and urine tests detected abnormally high levels of mercury in her system and the hospital initiated ongoing chelation therapy, a treatment for heavy metal poisoning, to try to remove the toxins from her bloodstream. Unfortunately, “despite prolonged chelation therapy, the patient remains unable to verbalize or care for herself, requiring ongoing tube feeding for nutritional support,” the CDC reports.

How to Know if Your Skin Cream is Safe

Over the past several years, the FDA has identified a number of products that contain mercury and there have been instances where people exposed to these products have suffered mercury poisoning or were found to have elevated levels of mercury in their bodies. Unfortunately, many of these mercury-containing products are entering the country through illegal channels, says Jason Humbert of the FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs. “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.”

How can you know if your skin cream contains mercury? The FDA warns that cosmetics marketed as “anti-aging” or “skin lightening” can contain mercury and exposure to these cosmetics can result in mercury poisoning. These products are typically marketed as being able to remove age spots, blemishes, wrinkles and freckles and are often manufactured abroad and sold illegally in the United States. Cosmetics sold legally in the U.S. are subject to strict regulations and federal law requires that these products list their ingredients on the label. You can find out if your skin cream is potentially toxic by checking the label for the words “mercurous chloride,” “mercuric,” “mercurio,” “mercury,” or “calomel,” all of which indicate that the product contains mercury. If your skin cream does contain mercury, you should stop using it immediately.