Poison by Cosmetic: Certain Skin Products May Contain Mercury
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Poison by Cosmetic: Certain Skin Products May Contain Mercury

Exposure to mercury can harm not only product users but their families as well

August 5, 2016

According to Business Wire, in 2014 the global cosmetic market reached $460 billion. By 2020, it will have reached $675 billion. Yet many of the products in this market that claim to improve skin will actually do much more damage than good.

Mercury is toxic and may have serious consequences on health, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but many cosmetic products still contain this harmful ingredient even though it is not allowed in drugs or cosmetics by the FDA except in special circumstances.

How can these products be identified?

The products usually purport to lighten skin or treat signs of aging, such as age spots and wrinkles, although adolescents may use them for the treatment of acne. But it is the label—or lack thereof—that will sound the mercurial alarm.

"If the words 'mercurous chloride,' 'calomel,' 'mercuric,' 'mercurio,' or 'mercury' are listed on the label, mercury's in it," warns the FDA, "and you should stop using the product immediately."

A product without a label should also raise red flags for consumers. All cosmetics and nonprescription drugs are required by federal law to list ingredients on a label, and consumers should avoid any products without labels. In addition, if a product label is marked with a foreign language and does not also provide an English-language label, that may be an indication of illegal marketing.

Anyone selling, distributing, or marketing cosmetics containing mercury and purporting to lighten skin "may be subject to enforcement action," the FDA states, "including seizure of products, injunctions, and, in some situations, criminal prosecution."

The symptoms of mercury poisoning include irritability, shyness, tremors, changes in vision or hearing, memory problems, depression, and numbness and tingling in the hands, feet, or around the mouth. And the user is not the only person at risk from the product.

Family members or friends can breathe in the mercury vapors released by the products or touch towels or washcloths contaminated with the toxin. Merely touching skin "cleansed" with such a product could prove harmful. But the people most vulnerable to mercury toxicity are pregnant women, young children, and especially nursing babies, whose developing brains and nervous systems can be damaged by mercury.

So what should a person do if he or she comes into contact with such products?

"Thoroughly wash your hands and other parts of your body that have come in contact with products that contain mercury," the FDA advises. "Contact your health care professional or a medical care clinic for advice."

To dispose of the products properly, they should be sealed in plastic bags or leak-proof containers. Consumers are advised to check with their local environmental, health, or solid waste agency for further disposal instructions.