Awhile back, I posted about the scare of tiny amounts of lead found in some lipsticks. That was scary enough.

But an article in today’s Philippine Inquirer caught my eye, and this is potentially more serious: That some imported “skin whiteners” have been found to contain mercury, so our active “green” movement want these cremes banned.

Citing data from the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA), the EcoWaste Coalition said some 28 skin lightening products were recalled from January to September 2010 due to their high mercury content.

Two of the recently recalled skin whitening products were found to have 1,000 and 3,000 parts per million (ppm) of mercury, way beyond the
FDA’s “allowable threshold” of 1 ppm, the organization said.

That’s a lot of mercury.

Given the amount of fraud and adulteration in medicines, food, and manufactured goods that is found here, I was not surprised that someone was making money by adding cheap but toxic ingredients to skin creme.

What I did find surprising is that, unlike the theoretical threat of  the lead containing lipstick, where the problem was theoretical, when it comes to mercury poisoning from skin creme, there have already been several cases reported, in  the US.

In 1996, the CDC reported  high mercury levels in over 200 people, mainly women, who had used a Mexican skin creme that contained “calomel” as an ingredient. In 2005, a woman in NYCity was diagnosed with mercury toxicity, and a skin creme produced in the Domincan Republic was blamed. A HongKong population study showed 63% of those who used skin whitening creme had increased levels of mercury in their blood.

The latest scare, however, comes from Chicago, where an investigative report showed that five out of fifty “skin whitening” cremes contained high mercury levels.

Alas, this is only the tip of the iceberg, since the worst products were imported products sold to immigrants in smaller ethnic groceries or fleamarkets.

Why do women use such products? Sometimes it is to treat freckles, age spots, or the “melasma” (aka Cloasma), the dark areas that appear on the cheeks of pregnant women or those who use birth control pills or hormone replacement.

But the dirty little secret is that in many countries “white skin” is considered attractive. This is only partially a “racial” thing:  the dirty little secret is that paler skin in many countries is associated with wealth and beauty, perhaps because rich women don’t have to work out in the hot sun. Add to this a media touts pale skinned women (here the media is full of European, Eurasian, and pale northern Asian women) as the ideal beauty, and you can see why locals think that they need to change to be seen as beautiful.

As a result, most facial cremes contain “whiteners” in them, and the TV is full of commercials touting the beauty of women using their skin whitening creme.

Probably half of Philippine women use skin whitening cream, and although the brand names in the high end supermarkets are probably safe, given the inability of the government to properly supervise all imports, one has to worry what is being sold in the “palenkes” or street markets. Just like medicines, just buying a “brand name” is not proof that you aren’t buying a counterfeit brand with toxic ingredients.

Another problem is that even if you buy other skin cremes, some  of them contain other potentially toxic ingredients such as hydroxyquinanone or corticosteroids.

But don’t worry. In the race to beauty, many cosmetic companies are still out there trying to convince customers to buy their non toxic skin whiteners.

Just what the world needs: making women think they are ugly to make a buck.

Please, black is beautiful, and maybe Michele Obama can start working on this self esteem issue while she promotes healthy eating and exercize.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She blogs at Finest Kind clinic and fishmarket.

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