Toxic Skin-lightening Cosmetics
The fact that mercury is a common ingredient in skin-lightening cosmetics poses serious human health concerns. Furthermore, many cultures continue to use toxic cosmetics to lighten skin by suppressing melanin production. Luckily, global humanitarian organizations are now collaborating with several countries to ban toxic skin-lightening cosmetics.

The Harm of Toxic Skin-Lightening Cosmetics

Women and men both use skin-lightening cosmetics to lighten their skin, fade blemishes and freckles and treat acne. However, people who use these products do not realize the damage they can cause because they contain mercury. Toxic skin-lightening cosmetics can cause skin rashes, scarring and digestive, neurological and immune system damage.

Not only are those who use mercury-laden products at risk, but the toxic skin-lightening cosmetics harm children through breastfeeding and other family members when users wash off the products. The washed-off products contaminate the family’s food chain. Moreover, these washed-off products can travel far without breaking down, contaminating both soil and water.

Global Demand for Skin Lightening

The skin-lightening cosmetics industry is slated to grow to $11.8 billion by 2026. High demand stems from a growing South Asian middle class and changing demographics in the Caribbean and Africa. Although the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) bans cosmetics with mercury, it recently found mercury in numerous products that did not indicate its presence on their labels.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury

As more becomes known about the harm of toxic skin-lightening cosmetics, countries and global organizations are mounting campaigns to reduce or eliminate their use. Gabon, Jamaica and Sri Lanka are collaborating as part of a $14 million comprehensive strategy to prohibit mercury from skin-lightening cosmetics and promote the beauty of all skin tones. Their Minamata Convention on Mercury strives to severely limit mercury in cosmetics.  This group set a limit of 1 mg/kg of mercury in cosmetics; however, tests have proved it is difficult to get compliance. In 2018, tests showed that 10% of 300 tested cosmetics in 22 countries exceeded the limit and worse yet, some exceeded the limit by 100 times.

Still, the Mimamata collaboration continues to work towards its goal. The Conference of the Parties to the Minamata Convention on Mercury (COP-5) will have its fifth summit in Geneva, Switzerland during the fall of 2023.

World Health Organization and the Biodiversity Research Institute Leadership

The World Health Organization and the Biodiversity Research Institute are now collaborating with the governments of Gabon, Jamaica and Sri Lanka. They are leading the effort for the Global Environment Facility (GEF)-funded, United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)-led campaign “Eliminating Mercury Skin-Lightening Products.” This project hopes to eliminate skin-lightening cosmetics that include mercury by:

  • Assisting governments by creating new laws and regulations as well as strengthening those that already exist all in accordance with the Minamata Convention.
  • Improving national capabilities for evaluating and tracking skin-lightening goods.
  • Increasing awareness of the problem in the project nations as well as on a global scale.
  • Enlisting participants in the supply chain in an attempt to prevent the manufacture, sale and distribution of skin-lightening goods.

Moving Forward

The collaboration between Gabon, Jamaica and Sri Lanka and global partners in the “Eliminating Mercury  Skin-Lightening Products” campaign is significant and the fifth Minamata Convention should synergize global efforts to raise awareness of the harmful effects of skin-lightening cosmetics.

– Lauryn Defreitas
Photo: Flickr