FDA Will Investigate Mercury in Skin Bleaching Creams Found in Chicago

BlogHer Original Post
Woman with cream on her face

What harm is there in using a skin bleaching cream to lighten your skin or banish age spots? If the skin lightening cream you use contains mercury, then the harm to the human body can be devastating. The FDA announced Friday that it will investigate incidents of creams containing mercury found on Chicago store shelves.

According to the Chicago Tribune, an investigative report the paper published May 18 spurred the FDA to action. During its investigation, the Tribune sent 50 jars of cream that had been purchased in the city or online to a lab for testing.

The paper states that of the jars sent, "five had more than 6,000 parts per million of mercury —- enough to potentially cause kidney damage over time, according to a medical expert." Mercury poisoning also may result in neurological damage.

FDA spokesperson Ira Allen told the paper in its first story that with only 500 FDA agents, it's impossible for the agency to screen all the food, drug and cosmetic imports it's expected to monitor. Per the daily's follow-up story, the FDA has alerted Chicago district offices about the dangerous creams and "will take enforcement action if necessary."

Furthermore, Allen said:

"We didn't know there was that kind of a risk, and we believe now there is a level of risk ... We are going to follow up."

While the Tribune's report prompted the FDA to act regarding skin lightening creams on Chicago store shelves, this 2009 alert shows the FDA's guidance to field personnel regarding shipments of bleach cream with mercury from another country. The alert reveals that the agency tries to stop mercury-laced creams from reaching the nation's stores when it's aware of threats. (See screen shot as well.)

The Tribune's investigative report says:

The Food and Drug Administration banned mercury in skin-bleaching or lightening products in 1990, but the agency rarely tests the products to see if consumers are at risk.

Mercury works to lighten skin by blocking melanin, the dark biological pigment that gives skin color. Melanin helps to protect skin from the sun's ultraviolet rays that can cause skin cancer. This pigment also produces freckles and age spots. The desire to banish age spots and even skin tone, as well as biases toward fair skin, make skin bleaching creams a lucrative market.

The following video segment from a 2009 episode of Tyra Banks Show was also included in a post at the blog Whose Shoes Are These Anyway? about colorism, a bias toward certain shades of skin. The clip is included in this BlogHer.com post because it exposes some of the beliefs people of color sometimes have about lighter skin as better skin.

In the segment, Banks talks about the dangers of bleach creams. One guest says her mother started using bleach creams on her skin when she was five years old. The guest also uses skin bleach cream on her daughter. One woman in the clip says not only does her lighter skin make her prettier, but also her smaller lips, thinner nose, and less "nappy" hair.

Experiments on bias suggests people in some parts of the world develop a bias toward fairer skin at an early age. CNN recently conducted a less scientific exploration of young children and attitudes about skin color for a special report, and BlogHer's Maria Niles interviewed Anderson Cooper about the show.

Lest anyone conclude that this desire to appear more European is only an affliction of African-Americans, here is an academic article about Asians having plastic surgery possibly to fit a western standard of beauty. In addition, a 2008 post from BlogHer CE Snigdhasen talks about the bias toward white skin among people in India.

However, as viewers saw in this 2007 ABC news report embedded below, some white people want to look less European.


If video does not play, please try viewing it at ABC.

Related: BlogHer CE Laina Dawes's post on baseball player Sami Sosa's skin bleaching

Nordette Adams is a BlogHer CE & you can find her other stuff through Her 411.

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