New research by an international coalition of NGOs has discovered illegal levels of harmful mercury in a range of skin-lightening creams.

In recent years a number of harmful substances have been discovered in these controversial cosmetics, which campaign groups say are “marketed to women of color based on racist beauty norms”.

As part of a three-year programme, which included laboratory testing, NGOs in the EU, USA, Asia and Africa purchased and tested creams and other cosmetic products for the heavy metal mercury.

60% of the products tested were found to contain more than the legal limit of 1 part per million of mercury. Some creams contained more than a hundred thousand times that limit.

Mercury has been used in skin lightening creams for many years despite its well-known negative impact on human health.

Elena Lymberidi-Settimo Project Manager at the European Environmental Bureau and International Co-coordinator of the Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) said: 

“Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin which must be effectively controlled.”

Lymberidi-Settimo also pointed the finger at internet retailers who she says bear responsibility for products sold on their sites.

In 2018 Amazon and eBay were among companies that promised to quickly remove dangerous items when they signed a voluntary ‘Product Safety Pledge’ with the European Commission.

The products were all manufactured outside Europe, but researchers were able to easily find and order them to addresses in the EU.

19 products purchased on Amazon and eBay and delivered to addresses in the UK and Belgium contained illegal levels of mercury.

Last week Amazon US removed several products from sale after campaigners from the Sierra Club and Beutywell Project brought a petition to the company in Minnesota and showed them the results of the research.

Many of the same brands were found to contain high mercury levels on several consecutive sampling occasions, in different years, and purchased from both physical shops and via e-commerce platforms.

Michael Bender, Mercury Policy Project Director and ZMWG co-coordinator said:

“Despite these illegal high mercury products being essentially banned by governments around the globe, our testing result shows the same products continuing to be sold locally and on the internet. In particular, E-Commerce giants are not above the law and must be held accountable.”

Amazon told Associated Press that sellers using their site must follow the proper guidelines or face their accounts being removed. Ebay has similar rules that prohibit the sale of restricted items.

Most of the products tested were manufactured in Asia, especially in Pakistan (62%), Thailand (19%) and China (13%), according to their packaging.

Dr. Shahriar Hossain from Environment and Social Development Organisation (ESDO) Bangladesh said:

“These hazardous and illegal products pose a serious mercury exposure risk, especially to repeat users and their children. 

Hossain also welcomed the opportunity to cooperate with authorities to end what she called a “toxic trade in high mercury skin lightening creams”.

Governments from around the world have signed up the Minamata Convention to phase out and limit mercury. Parties to the Convention are meeting in Geneva this week to discuss their progress and adopt new measures.

Alongside the publication of their findings on skin lightening creams the Zero Mercury Working Group – an international coalition of more than 110 public interest environmental and health NGOs from more than 55 countries – has issued recommendations to improve the implementation of the Minamata Convention.

Key proposed enforcement measures include: new laws and regulations, alert systems, international and regional collaboration, inspections, penalties, engagement with online retailers and consumer outreach.

You can download the full reports and find out more on the Zero Mercury Working Group website.