Toxic skincare

Last autumn the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) raised concerns over skin lightening products which can be dangerous for consumers.

The concerns arose because of harmful ingredients – hydroquinone and mercury – that are illegal for over-the-counter sales.

People who have used products with hydroquinone, says the FDA, have suffered side effects that included rashes, facial swelling, and permanent skin discoloration, the FDA warned. Meanwhile, mercury is highly toxic and can damage the nervous, digestive and immune systems, as well as the lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes.

Skin lightening products are marketed as treatments for uneven skin tone, acne, age spots, freckles and wrinkles. Companies may describe skin lightening products as skin bleaching, fading, evening, brightening or whitening products. The products are often sold as creams, lotions, soaps or powders in shops that cater to Hispanic/Latino, Asian, African or Middle Eastern communities, the FDA said.

However, according to the FDA, these products limit the skin’s production of melanin, responsible for skin, hair and eye colour. But hydroquinone and mercury can build up in the body over time.

“Skin lightening products containing hydroquinone are not approved for over-the-counter sale,” the FDA said at the time. “However, you can get a prescription skin product containing hydroquinone from your health care provider. The use of mercury in skin lightening products is banned.”

Tripartite state intervention

The governments of Gabon, Jamaica and Sri Lanka have joined forces to fight back against damaging beauty practices, launching a joint US$14-million project to eliminate the use of mercury in skin lightening products.

According to the WHO, using cosmetics to inhibit the body’s production of melanin, leading the skin to appear lighter, is a centuries-old practice in many parts of the world that continues to take a toxic toll today.

Both men and women use skin lightening products, not only to lighten their skin but to fade freckles, blemishes, age spots and treat acne. However, consumers are often unaware that many of these products contain harmful chemicals including mercury, a toxic substance which poses risks to human health and contaminates the environment.

Skin lightening products can cause skin rashes and discolouration; scarring; nervous, digestive and immune system damage, as well as anxiety and depression. The Minamata Convention on Mercury has set a limit of 1mg/1kg (1ppm) for mercury in skin lightening products. However, a 2018 Zero Mercury Working Group and Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) test of over 300 products from 22 countries found that approximately 10% of skin lightening creams exceeded this limit, with many containing as much as 100 times the authorised amount.

UN funding

Led by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), with funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and executed by the WHO and the BRI, the ‘Eliminating mercury skin lightening products’ project will work to reduce the risk of exposure to mercury-added skin lightening products, raising awareness of the health risks associated with their use, developing model regulations to reduce their circulation, and halting production, trade and distribution across domestic and international markets.

“Mercury is a hidden and toxic ingredient in the skin lightening creams that many people are using daily, often without an understanding of just how dangerous this is”, GEF CEO Carlos Manuel Rodriguez says.

“This initiative is significant as it focuses not only on substitutions for harmful ingredients, but on awareness building that can help change behaviours that are damaging to individual health as well as the planet.”

According to the WHO, skin lightening products don’t just pose a risk to the user – children can be exposed through breastmilk, and food chains can become contaminated when cosmetics are washed off into wastewater. In addition, the compound can travel far from its point of dispersal, accumulating in the earth, water and soil without breaking down in the environment. 

Growing demand

With demand for skin lightening products projected to grow to some $11.8 billion by 2026, fuelled by a growing middle class in the Asia-Pacific region and changing demographics in Africa and the Caribbean, the use of  harmful ingredients in skin lightening products is a global issue.

UNEP Industry and Economy Division Director Sheila Aggarwal-Khan adds that the use of mercury in skin lightening products was a serious public health issue in need of urgent attention.

“While Governments have agreed limitations on mercury use through the Minamata Convention, companies continue to manufacture, trade and sell toxic products to consumers”, she says. “UNEP is proud to work with these three countries, as well as a passionate set of co-financing partners to transform the industry.”

“WHO calls for urgent action on mercury as one of the top chemicals of public health concern. The health impacts of mercury have been known for centuries but more people should become aware now,” says Dr Annette Prüss, acting director, WHO Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health. “Countries should urgently act to take legal action against harmful practices so that this dangerous element is eliminated from skin lightening products that people use every day.”

Phase-out

The three-year project will bring the countries together to align their policies on the cosmetic sector with best practice, creating an enabling environment to phase out mercury and attempting to shift broader cultural norms on skin complexion through engaging organisations, healthcare professionals and influencers working in the field.

Sema Jonsson, founder of project co-financier the Pantheon of Women who Inspire, said the organisation wanted people to admire and be proud of their natural skin tone. “We are all beautiful,” Jonsson said. “Not in spite of our skin but because of it. We need a new ideal to follow, one which is equated with humanity and not the fairness of one’s skin.”

Skin lightening products are marketed as treatments for uneven skin tone, acne, age spots, freckles and wrinkles. Companies may describe skin lightening products as skin bleaching, fading, evening, brightening or whitening products. The products are often sold as creams, lotions, soaps or powders in shops that cater to Hispanic/Latino, Asian, African or Middle Eastern communities, the FDA said.

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