Not so fair: Gabon, Jamaica & Sri Lanka launch $14-mn project to eliminate mercury use in skin-lighteners

Mercury can endanger the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys and may be fatal

By Arya Rohini
Published: Wednesday 15 February 2023
Many of the products contain as much as 100 times the permitted levels of mercury. Representative photo: iStock.
Many of the products contain as much as 100 times the permitted levels of mercury. Representative photo: iStock. Many of the products contain as much as 100 times the permitted levels of mercury. Representative photo: iStock.

Three countries have joined forces to end the use of mercury in skin-lightening at a time when protests against the obsession with fairer skin and how it negatively affects women’s psyches have been gaining traction.

The governments of Gabon, Jamaica and Sri Lanka have launched a $14-million project to eliminate the use of mercury in skin-lightening products.

Also read: Beauty and the beast

Skin-lightening products can harm the mental, digestive and immunological systems, as well as result in anxiety, depression, skin rashes, discolouration, scarring and immune system damage. A California woman who used skin-whitening cosmetics that contained mercury fell into coma in 2019.

“The inhalation of mercury vapour can produce harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys and may be fatal,” according to the World Health Organization.

Mercury in skin-lightening cosmetics is restricted to 1 milligram / 1 kilogram parts per million (ppm) by the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

However, a 2018 investigation by the Zero Mercury Working Group and the Biodiversity Research Institute on more than 300 items from 22 countries discovered that 10 per cent of skin-lightening creams surpassed this level. Many of them contain as much as 100 times the permitted quantity.

“Mercury is a hidden and toxic ingredient in the skin lightening creams that many people are using daily, often without an understanding of just how dangerous this is,” said Global Environment Facility’s executive officer and chairperson Carlos Manuel Rodriguez.

Skin-lightening products not only endanger the user; they may also affect children through breast milk and damage food chains when cosmetics are discharged into wastewater.

Also read: Mercury pollution: Parties to Minamata Convention discuss non-binding declaration but can it help

Additionally, the substance may disperse widely, collecting in the ground, water and soil without decomposing in the environment.

The three-year-long project will bring the countries together to align their policies on the cosmetic industry with best practices, create a conducive environment to phase out mercury and attempt to change cultural norms on skin complexion.

Sema Jonsson, founder of the Pantheon of Women Who Inspire, said the alliance wanted people to admire and be proud of their natural skin tone. “We are all beautiful, not in spite of our skin but because of it,” said Jonsson.

Mercury poisoning is rampant among skin-lightening and anti-ageing creams marketed online through sites like eBay, Alibaba and Amazon, according to 2022 analysis by Zero Mercury Working Group.

Over a 13-month period, the working group examined 271 goods purchased in 15 different countries and discovered that over half of them were tainted with hazardous levels of mercury exceeding the US legal limit of 1 ppm.

“It’s really concerning that these online manufacturers continue to sell and flaunt and profit from illegal products that are doing significant damage to consumers,” Michael Bender, international coordinator with the Mercury Policy Project, told the Guardian.

Due to its ability to prevent melanin synthesis, mercury is used as a skin-lightening agent. In addition to providing fairness to the skin, it may be used to eliminate wrinkles, spots, freckles and blemishes. By 2026, according to some projections, sales of products that lighten the skin will be close to $12 billion worldwide.

Indian scenario

After liberalisation, a bunch of companies decided to exploit the country’s post-colonial obsession with fairness. The advertisement strategies of these companies revolved around the theme: No compromise with fairness.

Later on, the ‘dream man element’, which was prominent in the initial days of these advertisements, was replaced with women empowerment. Some promotions showed the cream as a confidence booster to get the ideal job.

Many of the skin-lightening products sold in the country were tested with the presence of mercury.

“Mercury, which is prohibited for use in cosmetics in India, except for eye care products, was found in 44 per cent of fairness creams,” a 2014 study by Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment found.

Mercury was present in the fairness creams tested by CSE in the range of 0.10 ppm to 1.97 ppm. Three creams contained this toxic heavy metal above 1 ppm — the maximum limit applicable in the US, the study added.

“Aroma Magic Fair Lotion, a product of Blossom Kochhar Beauty Products Pvt Ltd, had the highest mercury level at 1.97 ppm, followed by Olay Natural White, a product of Procter and Gamble, India and Ponds White Beauty of Hindustan Unilever Ltd,” CSE had found.

Read more:

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.