Skin-lighteners are sold as creams, lotions and soaps. Hundreds if not thousands of them are available in the global market. Those that use mercury as an active ingredient often contain from 2 to 10 percent mercury by weight.  Products tested in a variety of countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America and North America have contained from 660 to 57,000 parts per million (ppm) mercury. Unfortunately, the most effective ingredients, which include mercury compounds and hydroquinone, are also the cheapest, and that induces many manufacturers to use them in products, despite their well documented toxic hazards.

Relevant legislation and NGO policy work

Legislation exists in many countries limiting or prohibiting mercury in cosmetic products.


The Minamata Convention on Mercury, under Article 4 requires that Each Party shall not allow, by taking appropriate measures, the manufacture, import or export of mercury-added Cosmetics (with mercury content above 1ppm), including skin lightening soaps and creams, and not including eye area cosmetics where mercury is used as a preservative and no effective and safe substitute preservatives are available[1], after 2020, except where the Party has a registered exemption pursuant to Article 6.

The WHO have also published a relevant flyer.

The ZMWG has been leading a campaign on this topic since 2017. 

The ZMWG has also been providing input on this issue at the global negotiations towards a robust mercury treaty. See the ZMWG fact sheet on skin creams

A project was carried out (Jan-March 2011) in EECCA region, from the ZMWG via their partners AWHHE (Armenia), GEBMA(Georgia) and  Center for environmental solutions (CES) (Belarus). More details can be found here

In the EU

Regulation (EC) N° 1223/2009 on cosmetic products is the main regulatory framework for finished cosmetic products when placed on the EU market. Under this regulation,  mercury and its compounds may not be present as ingredients in cosmetics, including soaps, lotions, shampoos, skin bleaching products, etc. (except for phenyl mercuric salts as a preservative in eye make-up, and in products for removal of eye make-up, in concentrations not exceeding 0.007 percent by weight) that are marketed within the European Community.

The prohibition of the manufacture, export and import of Cosmetics with mercury and mercury compounds, except those special cases included in entries 16 and 17 of Annex V to Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council ( 1).,  after 31.12.2020,  is covered by the Mercury Regulation (EU) 2017/852 which complements a large body of existing EU environmental law on mercury.

Mercury in cosmetics is also covered through legislation relevant to Trade of Dangerous Chemicals. The production (e.g. for export) in the EU of mercury containing cosmetics was also banned in 2003 under Annex 5 of the EU Regulation 689/2008 implementing the Rotterdam Convention.

[1] 1/ The intention is not to cover cosmetics, soaps or creams with trace contaminants of mercury.