The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently sent out a warning to consumers to beware of getting mercury poisoning from skincare products. The FDA specifically warned that certain skin lightening and anti-aging creams are particularly dangerous. The products, according to the agency, are made abroad and sold illegally in the U.S.
FDA Warns Consumers
According to Jason Humbert of the FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs, products containing mercury are being sold in Latino, Asian, African-American, and Middle Eastern communities all over the U.S. as skin lightening and anti-aging creams. They're also being sold via apps and on social networking sites without consumers knowing what they're really getting. It's unclear where the creams are coming from, but what is clear is that they are seriously dangerous.
These skin creams may be used on age spots, freckles, blemishes, and wrinkles. And teens may unknowingly be using these creams to treat acne. The products may be brought back to the U.S. by those visiting other countries, not realizing that they contain a dangerous heavy metal.
“FDA does not allow mercury in drugs or in cosmetics, except under very specific conditions where there are no other safe and effective preservatives available – conditions that these products do not meet," Linda Katz, M.D., director of the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors said in a statement.
Beauty Products That Contain Mercury Compounds
The FDA noted that because mercury is so dangerous, it's highly controlled in domestic beauty products. But according to Paige Padgett, author of "Green Beauty Rules," mercury compounds are found in some beauty products including eye creams, skin creams, and mascara.
The mercury compound thimerosal is legal under very limited circumstances. Mercury is a potent preservative, but in most cases, another preservative can be substituted. The FDA allows the use of mercury compounds in eye area cosmetics at no more than 65 parts per million (0.0065 percent) when no other safe and effective ingredients can be substituted. In other cosmetics, FDA will take action if the product contains more than
1 part per million (0.0001 percent).
To be clear, legal U.S. products only contain trace amounts of the compound as outlined above, meaning you could not get mercury poisoning from them. However, there is still a tiny bit of exposure, which is always worth avoiding, especially if you're also getting mercury from other sources unbeknownst to you, like seafood, for example.
"Bioaccumulation along with prolonged exposure and toxicity at extremely low levels makes me avoid mercury at all costs. I don't even eat tuna anymore," says Jean Seo, founder of the natural beauty company Evolue Skincare Inc. Canned tuna can contain more than 30 times the levels of mercury as found in beauty care products.
Dangers of Mercury Poisoning
Mercury is an extremely dangerous heavy metal, particularly when it's found in skincare products, because it’s so easily absorbed into the skin. Once you accumulate the toxin, it's hard for the body to process it out.
The FDA warns that it's not just the person using the product who's at risk of mercury poisoning. It can increase exposure for your entire family and especially vulnerable children.
“Your family might breathe mercury vapors released from these products. Your children might touch washcloths or towels that are contaminated with mercury. It could be as simple as touching someone’s cheek or face,” says Arthur Simone, M.D., a senior medical advisor at the FDA.
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Symptoms of Mercury Poisoning
Exposure to mercury can be extremely dangerous to the nervous system and the kidneys. Not to mention that it's difficult to discern what's going on from the strange list of symptoms. Some may have no idea that they were exposed. And kids are even more difficult to diagnose because they might not know what's happening. Symptoms include:
- Mood swings
- Other emotional changes
- Muscle twitching and tremors
- Skin irritation
- Decreased cognitive functions
Pregnant women and nursing babies are particularly vulnerable because brain and cognitive function is still in the developing stage. Also note that mercury is passed through breast milk.
How to Avoid Getting Exposed to Mercury in Beauty Products
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"Just check your labels. In the U.S., skin lightening products are considered drugs, rather than cosmetics, and regulated heavily. Mercury was banned in most cosmetics in the '70s," says Seo. "If your product isn't labeled, you really shouldn't be using it in the first place."
According to Seo, common names for mercury include mercurous chloride, calomel, mercuric, or mercurio, and if you see these on your label (in the U.S. especially) you should contact the FDA with the product information. And be extra careful when purchasing foreign skin lightening and anti-aging products.
If you’ve been exposed to a product that you think may be dangerous, the FDA warns consumers to wash their hands and other body parts that have come in contact with the product and then contact their healthcare professional. You should also ensure that you properly dispose of the product to avoid exposing others to the toxin.
Other Ways to Avoid Mercury
Beauty products aren't the most common way that we're exposed to mercury. It's usually through fish and seafood. Tilefish, swordfish, King mackerel, and shark should be avoided because they are so high in mercury, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This is important for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding as well as young children. You can also be exposed to mercury as a result of a faulty tooth filling, broken thermometer, or as a result of air pollution.
Whatever the cause, if you think you've been exposed to mercury, talk to your healthcare provider about getting tested. Methyl mercury, also called organic mercury, is found in red blood cells, which is where doctors check when they do a blood test for mercury.
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