Bleaching out mercury in cosmetics through e-commerce

The Zero Mercury Working Group released a report which tested 271 online products purchased from 17 countries, exposing that nearly half contained illegal amounts of the dangerous neurotoxin chemical mercury. The report shows that some products sold online had thousands of times more mercury than the legal limit.

Between 2017 and 2022, the Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) conducted three separate investigations, each time confirming continued global access to often illegal skin-lightening products (SLPs), high in mercury. Most of the products sampled were manufactured in Asia, especially in Pakistan (43%), Thailand (8%), China (6%) and Taiwan (4%), according to their packaging. Based on the findings dangerous cosmetics are also crossing EU borders via e-commerce such as eBay and Aliexpress.

In the EU, the Cosmetics Regulation prohibits mercury-containing cosmetic products from being placed on their internal markets. But due to the massive growth of online e-commerce platform services, governments are facing an enormous challenge to keep toxic and often illegal products with dangerous amounts of mercury out of consumers’ hands.

The international coalition is calling for governments to have a mass overhaul of the online industry, as transparency standards and liability must be met by e-commerce markets.

Beauty at a heavy cost

The toxic trade of often illegal skin-lightening products containing mercury is a global crisis. This is likely to only worsen with skyrocketing demand,  as many people of colour are under the pressure of Eurocentric beauty standards, based on the racist notion that lighter skin is more desirable. In the quest for lighter skin, many turn to skin lightening products and by choosing some of the least expensive products, unwittingly expose themselves to more toxic and often illegal substances.

Regular use of skin-bleaching or skin-lightening creams and soaps containing mercury can lead to rashes, skin discolouration and blotching. Long-term exposure can have serious health consequences, including damage to the skin, eyes, lungs, kidneys and the digestive, immune and nervous systems.

Profits without responsibilities

Although the report shows evidence of the e-commerce platforms selling non-compliant products, as it stands, there is a lack of third-party liability. As a result, e-commerce platforms have no liability to verify if vendors comply with the Cosmetics Regulation. Moreover, e-commerce counterfeit cosmetics sales run rampant, often containing higher volumes of mercury than originally sourced products.

Authorities’ efforts in vain

Currently, there are measures in place in Europe to monitor and prohibit unsafe consumer products to protect citizens. The EU has in place the EU Safety Gate or Rapid Exchange of Information System (RAPEX), an EU alert system, that allows a quick exchange on measures to recall products to protect citizens. Nevertheless dangerous, toxic, and often illegal, mercury-added products still reach consumers’ hands.

Despite EU authorities making their best efforts to prohibit dangerously toxic mercury cosmetics, the measures will not be sufficient if the illegal cosmetics silk road is kept open via legal loopholes allowing e-commerce to carry on business as usual.

Solutions at global level

137 countries have committed to the Minamata Convention to phase out and limit mercury, including in cosmetics. The Convention is being held in Bali, Indonesia running from 21 -25 March. Government delegations will map out steps to curtail additional mercury-added products and processes and to reduce releases and exposures to mercury.

Cracking the online code

EU decision-makers must ensure a broad scope and clear definitions to strengthen the application of the Digital Services Act (DSA), now under discussion. They must clearly define the limits of the exemption of intermediary liability for online marketplaces, given the worryingly high level of illegal activities online, such as the selling of unsafe products.

Most importantly, EU institutions need to ensure that the basic consumer protection and due diligence obligations apply to all intermediaries, regardless of their size. Clear obligations must be established on marketplaces to verify traders and conduct random checks on services and products. Authorities need to provide for swift and more effective enforcement, and for means of redress for consumers when obligations under the DSA are not respected.