Ingredient in skin creams poses danger to children, pregnant women

Posted August 6

The FDA is warning that skin creams and lighteners made in other countries contains an ingredient that is making people sick. Families with pregnant women and young children should check labels for words that look like mercury. (Deseret Photo)

Mercury poisoning is a risk for anyone who eats a lot of seafood; it's also a risk if anyone in your household uses a skin-lightening cream made in another country.

The Food and Drug Administration warned this week that some skin-lightening and anti-aging treatments manufactured abroad contain mercury and are making Americans sick. Of particular concern are products made in Mexico that are purchased online or brought into the country by tourists.

The creams and lotions are usually marketed as products that will remove age spots, freckles, blemishes and wrinkles. (They work because the mercury suppresses melanin, the pigment responsible for tanning.) Adolescents also sometimes use them to treat acne.

Consumers should check their skin products not only for the word "mercury" on the ingredient list, but also mercurous chloride, calomel, mercuric or mercurio, which also indicate the presence of mercury.

If any of these words are listed, stop using the product immediately, the FDA said.

The FDA has issued similar warnings before, and a 2011 study found elevated mercury levels in six of 16 skin-lightening products from Mexico and concluded that they posed a serious health risk. But the products are still finding their way into the U.S. five years later.

In Arizona, the hospitalization of a Tuscon child has been linked to a skin product that contained mercury, and two adults in the same household are also showing signs of mercury poisoning, Arizona Public Media reported July 26.

The risk of mercury poisoning is elevated in babies, children and pregnant women, and children can be exposed by simply by touching their mothers.

“Your family might breathe mercury vapors released from these products. Your children might touch washcloths or towels that are contaminated with mercury. It could be as simple as touching someone’s cheek or face,” FDA senior medical advisor Dr. Arthur Simone told Consumer Affairs.

Short-term exposure to mercury can result in nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, elevated blood pressure or heart rate, skin rashes and eye irritation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Long-term exposure to high levels of mercury can result in brain and kidney damage, as well as changes in vision and hearing. It can also cause brain damage, blindness and other problems in a developing fetus, the CDC says. And mercury can be passed to a nursing newborn through her mother's milk.

But levels can decline in the bloodstream as soon as a month after stopping use of a product that contains mercury, the World Health Organization says.

If you've been exposed to a product that contains mercury, wash thoroughly and dispose of the product in a leak-proof container or bag. It may look like a beauty product, but the FDA considers it hazardous waste.


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