Mercury poisoning linked to skin-lightening face cream

Orange County health officials urge consumers to stop use immediately

April 08, 2014
Face cream

UCI Health skin specialists are warning consumers to check labels carefully in the wake of a public health alert linking the use of a face-lightening skin cream to several cases of mercury poisoning in Orange County.

UCI Health dermatologist Dr. Anand Ganesan cautions against buying over-the-counter lightening products without consulting first with a dermatologist or physician about whether they are safe — and effective. “Before putting anything on your face or skin, be sure to ask your doctor about products you’re going to use,” he said. 

The Orange County Health Care agency issued a health advisory on Monday, April 7, saying it was investigating several cases of mercury poisoning traced to "a face cream from Mexico used for lightening the skin, fading freckles and age spots, and treating acne."

The cream, which was not named, contains dangerously high levels of mercury — more than 50,000 parts per million (ppm), the agency reported. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows only trace levels of mercury — less than 1 ppm — in face products sold to U.S. consumers.

Symptoms of mercury toxicity can range from irritability and nervousness to tremors, memory loss and depression. Children who come into contact with family members using the cream are also at risk, county officials said.

Face creams manufactured abroad and brought into or sold illegally in the United States should be avoided, given that most other countries lack stringent testing or a regulatory approval process, said Ganesan, who specializes in pigment disorders at the UCI Health Dermatology Center. The FDA bans mercury in cosmetics, except under very specific conditions.

Ganesan, an associate professor of dermatology at UC Irvine's Department of Dermatology who also holds a PhD in biological chemistry, said active ingredients that do have skin-lightening effects include hydroquinone, kojic acid, arbutin and lignin peroxidase. But it is best to rely on a well-trained dermatologist to determine which products containing any of these ingredients would work best for you.

“Currently approved over-the-counter skin lighteners in the United States have to prove only that they are safe, not that they are efficacious," he said. "A lot of expensive products out there just don’t work. A dermatologist can better advise you on what over-the-counter preparations may be effective — or prescribe a prescription skin-lightening cream that would work even better."

County health care officials have instructed medical providers to alert their patients to the serious health dangers of the mercury-laden facial creams, and to stop using the product immediately. Patients are advised not to discard the cream in regular trash receptacles, but instead to seal it in a bag and contact the county's environmental health office at 714-433-6000 for disposal instructions.

The FDA advises taking the following precautions to protect yourself from mercury poisoning:

  • Check the label of any skin lightening, anti-aging or other skin product you use. Stop using the product immediately if you see the words “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric,” “mercurio” or “mercury.”
  • Do not use any product without a label or a list of ingredients. U.S. law requires that ingredients be listed on the label of any cosmetic or drug.
  • Do not use a foreign product unless the label also describes ingredients in English.

Signs and symptoms of mercury poisoning include:

  • Nervousness
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Tremors
  • Memory loss
  • Depression
  • Changes in hearing or vision
  • Muscle cramping or pain
  • Numbness or tingling in hands, feet or around the lips.

Children can absorb mercury into their bodies from touching the skin of a family member wearing a cream containing high levels of mercury or even inhaling the chemical vapor. Babies and young children are especially at risk if they touch a parent or family member who has used the products, especially if they get cream on their hands then put their fingers into their mouths. 

For more information, contact the Orange County Health Care Agency Epidemiology Program at 714-834-8180. 

—  Susan Thomas and Kristina Lindgren, UCI Health Marketing & Communications

UCI Health comprises the clinical, medical education and research enterprises of the University of California, Irvine. Patients can access UCI Health at physician offices throughout Orange County and at its main campus, UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, Calif., a 412-bed acute care hospital that provides tertiary and quaternary care, ambulatory and specialty medical clinics, and behavioral health and rehabilitation services. U.S. News & World Report has listed it among America’s Best Hospitals for 13 consecutive years.

UC Irvine Medical Center is home to Orange County’s only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center, high-risk perinatal/neonatal program, Level I trauma center and Level II pediatric trauma center, and it’s the primary teaching hospital for the UC Irvine School of Medicine. UCI Health serves a region of more than 3 million people in Orange County, western Riverside County and southeast Los Angeles County. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.