Some Skin Lightening Creams Cause Mercury Poisoning
A recent issue of the Centers for Disease Control's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report advises doctors to be on the lookout for evidence of mercury poisoning among users of some skin lightening creams that may contain mercury.
The report further states that mercury poisoning can be transferred to other family members who are non-users of the contaminated lightening cream. Read on to discover the health risk associated with the creams and the origin of mercury-contaminated skin lightening creams discovered in two families in California and West Virginia.
Skin lightening (or skin whitening) creams are popular cosmetic agents typically used to undo sun damage to the skin, even-out skin tones and remove age spots. Skin lightening creams are also a popular cosmetic agent with dark-skinned individuals wanting to lighten their skin believing that it will enhance their appearance and potentially increase their chances in the job market.
However, as it turns out, there can be a health cost with using some creams to lighten the skin. One of the primary ingredients used in early skin lightening creams is mercury. Mercury is used to disrupt melanin production in melanocyte cells that gives natural skin its characteristic tone based on its level of melanocytes. Genetics and exposure to the sun determines the type and amount of melanin synthesized by the melanocytes and its distribution pattern in the skin.
The use of mercury in skin lightening products is banned in the U.S., but unfortunately not everywhere else. This was a discovery made by U.S. health officials who were alerted that family members and relatives living in California and West Virginia tested positive for increased levels of mercury in their bodies.
What health officials found was a total of 22 individuals in five households with potential mercury poisoning. Ten of the 22 reported use of skin-lightening creams. The users ranged in age from 16 to 62 years, and stated that they used the mercury-contaminated cream for skin-lightening, fading of freckles, and treating acne. Use of the cream ranged from intermittent to twice daily over a duration of up to 5 years. The cream was primarily applied to the face. Two of the users were mothers who reported using skin-lightening creams during three pregnancies and while breast feeding their infants.
Six users of the cream had nonspecific symptoms consistent with chronic exposure to mercury that included feeling tingling sensations, numbness, dizziness, forgetfulness, headaches and depression.
Chronic exposure to mercury can cause serious kidney damage as well as cause neuropsychologic effects that include nervousness, irritability, decreased cognitive function, headache, tremor, memory loss, depression, insomnia and fatigue. Children with prolonged exposure to mercury may experience acrodynia, irritability, anorexia, and poor muscle tone. However, the effects of mercury on neurologic development are not well understood in young children.
The source of the mercury-containing skin lightening creams in all of the affected households was discovered to have originated from purchases made in the U.S and in Mexico. All of the mercury-contaminated skin lightening products were determined to have been manufactured in Mexico.
All exposed individuals were treated as needed for mercury poisoning and their homes decontaminated.
The significance of this report is that it alerts health officials to the fact that even non-users who live in close proximity to a user of a mercury-contaminated skin lightening cream can experience mercury poisoning. The report recommends that before treating a patient for mercury poisoning from a skin lightening cream or other type of skin care product that may contain mercury, that a medical toxicologist should be consulted for a proper evaluation of type, degree and other factors associated with mercury poisoning.
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Reference: Centers for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Jan. 20, 2012