Fact Sheet IV: Mercury in cosmetics

Its compounds are being used in skin lightening creams in violation of law  

Mercury in fairness creams inhibits the formation of melanin, resulting in a lighter skin tone  

Mercury (Hg) is considered one of the top ten chemicals or group of chemicals of major public health concern by WHO.  Mercury is found in both inorganic and organic forms in cosmetics.

Intentional use of mercury salts is prohibited in non eye care cosmetics in several countries such as the US and the EU and India. However, inorganic ammoniated mercuric chloride and iodide are found mostly to be used in skin lightening creams.

Mercury in these creams inhibits the formation of melanin, resulting in a lighter skin tone. Recognising its trace presence, countries such as the US and Germany have specified 1 ppm as maximum limit allowed. It is 3 ppm in Canada. There are no such limits in India and any presence, therefore, is unlawful.  

Organic mercury compounds such as thiomersal and phenyl mercuric salts, on the other hand, are the only two mercuric compounds that are allowed to be used as a preservative in eye area cosmetics. This is due to lack of a safer alternative. In the EU, the permissible limit is equal to or less than 0.007 per cent by weight. India also applies the same limit. In the US it is 65 ppm.

The health risks
• The health risk from chronic and prolonged exposure to high concentration levels of mercury is well known and widely documented. The main adverse effect of the inorganic mercury contained in skin lightening creams is kidney damage.

• It may also cause skin rashes, skin discolouration and scarring, as well as a reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections.