The cosmetics industry has a long history of furthering the potentially dangerous and definitely racist notion that a person’s self-worth is tied to the color of their skin. And skin-whitening products are one of the most egregious examples. But alas, folks are spending a lot of money to whiten their skin. Skin whitening is an $8 billion global business and is projected to climb to nearly $12 billion by 2026, with women making 80 percent of the purchases. But many of the products on the market contain steroids, hydroquinone bleach, and other dangerous ingredients. And now, a recently-released report by the Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) found that skin-whitening soaps and creams sold online may contain dangerous levels of mercury.
For their study, ZMWG tested over 250 skin-whitening products from websites across the globe. They found that 129 of those products in 18 countries contained dangerously high levels of mercury. Executive Director of the Mercury Policy Project and ZMWG coordinator Michael Bender told CNN, “When we started looking at these products online, there was such widespread use. It was like an explosion compared to what we were seeing in the local markets.”
What makes this research even more scandalous is that mercury levels in cosmetics are restricted in most parts of the world because they are so dangerous. The Minamata Convention on mercury set an international limit for cosmetics of 1 part per million (ppm) of mercury in 2013. But nearly half of the products tested by the ZMWG contained more than the approved level of mercury, with many containing thousands of times more. Mercury is used in these products for its ability to block the skin’s production of melanin, the pigment that gives black and brown skin its color.
Skin-whitening products are commonly used across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The World Health Organization reported that nearly 77 percent of Nigerians bleach their skin. In the United States, these products are marketed much more discreetly. Rather than being called bleaching or whitening products, they are sold as products that reduce the presence of age spots and other skin blemishes instead.
The ZMWG wants online retailers to be held accountable for selling these dangerous products online and believes that the internet should not provide them with an exemption to the rules that exist around the world. “It’s unfair that physically-located companies have to adhere to national laws and internet companies seemingly don’t,” said Bender. “If it’s illegal domestically, it should be illegal online.”
Mercury is easily absorbed into the skin. And high levels of exposure can be dangerous, causing skin rashes, kidney damage, and nervous system disorders. Exposure can be particularly damaging to pregnant women, causing harmful changes to the placenta and, as a result, damaging the fetus.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex caught heat in 2021 when they announced that their Archwell Foundation had inked a deal with Procter and Gamble to tackle social issues like gender equality. Critics pointed to the company’s suspect sale of skin-lightening creams across Asia and Africa. Although Megan and Harry didn’t comment, P&G responded in a statement, “We are committed to doing the right thing across all aspects of our business – without exception. Doing more and doing better is important for us all – for our company, in our communities and for our planet.”