Buy a Skin Product Made Abroad? Check the Label for Mercury

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Do you use skin-lightening cosmetics or anti-aging products that promise to lighten freckles and age spots or make wrinkles or blemishes disappear? Did you buy the product on the internet or while visiting another country? You should check the ingredients label — your health might depend on it.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued an updated warning for consumers on the importance of avoiding skin creams, beauty and antiseptic soaps and lotions that contain mercury.

The FDA does not allow mercury in drugs or in cosmetics, except under very specific conditions in which no other safe and effective preservatives are available — conditions that these products do not meet.

The sale of such products is illegal in the United States, but because they are available on the internet or can be purchased in other countries, many people buy them and use them without knowing they contain mercury.

Recognizing products with mercury

How to recognize these products? Read the label. If your product contains the words “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric,” “mercurio,” or “mercury,” you should discontinue using it immediately, the FDA says. And, of course, don’t buy products with these ingredients.

If no ingredients are listed or there is no product label, don’t assume the product is safe, the FDA says. Federal law requires that any cosmetic or nonprescription drug list its ingredients on its label, so do not use a product that doesn’t have a label.

In addition, do not use drugs or cosmetics labeled in languages other than English unless English labeling also is provided. That’s also a sign that the product may be marketed illegally, the FDA says.

These products usually are manufactured abroad and sold illegally in the United States, often on social media, mobile apps or in shops catering to the Latino, Asian, African, or Middle Eastern communities, the FDA says.

The products often are promoted online on social media sites. People also buy them when visiting another country and bring them back to the United States for personal use, the FDA says.

Dangerous toxin

Mercury can be extremely harmful to your health, says dermatologist Melissa Piliang, MD. Mercury is a neurotoxin, meaning it has detrimental effects on the nervous system. It can damage the brain and lead to physical and emotional disorders.

“The concern is that the mercury would be absorbed through the skin or that vapors from the product could be inhaled and absorbed through the lungs,” Dr. Piliang says. “Mercury poisoning can cause symptoms such as irritability, depression, memory loss and tingling in the hands and feet, or around the mouth.”

Mercury vapor is the most dangerous form because it’s absorbed through the lungs, which allows much of it to reach the brain.

Danger from mercury exposure also exists for people who aren’t directly using these products, Dr. Piliang says.

Mercury can live on washcloths or towels, which can become contaminated and affect those who touch them.

Dr. Piliang says that mercury exposure is especially dangerous to unborn babies, infants and small children who have still-developing brains.

Make label reading a habit

It’s very important to read the ingredient list on any cosmetic product before using it, Dr. Piliang says.

“Every product that’s legally marketed in the United States is required to have an ingredient list that’s written in English,” Dr. Piliang says. “So if you get a product that doesn’t have an ingredient list or it’s not written in English, those are clues that you should be very, very cautious with that product.”

Dr. Piliang also cautions people to be mindful of products that they purchase abroad, since those products are not subject to the same health standards as products sold in the United States.

Before throwing out a product that may contain mercury, seal it in a plastic bag or leak-proof container, the FDA says. Check with your local environmental, health, or solid waste agency for disposal instructions. Some communities have special collections or other options for disposing of hazardous household waste.

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