Mercury findings in skin-lightening products


Welcome to the Mercury findings in skin-lightening products Online Database

Mercury compounds are frequently added to skin lightening products (SLPs) because mercury lightens the skin by suppressing the production of melanin, despite substantial health risks. SLPs have received significant attention in the scientific literature—and World Health Organization recognizes that mercury—added to some SLPs—is a “major public health concern.”

This database compiles results from the ZMWG’s past sampling and testing as well as data from official sources such as the EU Safety Gate – the European Rapid Alert System for dangerous products, the ASEAN Post-Marketing Alert System or national ‘detention lists’ published by governments and others.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury (“the Convention”), among other, bans the manufacture, import and export of cosmetic products with mercury content over 1 part per million (ppm).

Despite substantial health risks, mercury compounds are frequently added to skin lightening products (SLPs) because mercury lightens the skin by suppressing the production of melanin. SLPs have received significant attention in the scientific literature—and World Health Organization recognizes that mercury—added to some SLPs—is a “major public health concern.”

The regular use of SLPs containing mercury can lead to rashes, skin discoloration and blotching, but also damage the eyes, lungs, kidneys, digestive, immune and nervous systems.

Widespread use of SLPs remains a major issue because they are a symbol of societies grappling with internalized racism and colorism. In some populations, more than 50% of individuals use SLPs regularly. One analysis estimated that 27.7% of individuals globally have used them at one time or another.

SLPs containing mercury are sold through local markets and online. The importance of e-commerce is particularly concerning, given the growing market share of e-commerce generally, and the challenges of regulating online sales especially where the seller is outside the country.

Since 2017, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), in collaboration with the Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG), has been running a global NGO campaign focusing on the support of national government efforts to ban the manufacture, import, export and use of mercury-added cosmetics (with mercury content above 1 ppm). Throughout this campaign, extensive testing of skin-lightening products by the ZMWG, coordinated by the EEB, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and the Mercury Policy Project have been carried on, showing that toxic, dangerous and often illegal skin-lightening products can easily been found in local markets and internet platforms, even in countries where mercury in cosmetics have been prohibited. This database compiles results from the ZMWG’s past sampling and testing as well as data from official sources such as the EU Safety Gate - the European Rapid Alert System for dangerous products, the ASEAN Post-Marketing Alert System or national ‘detention lists’ published by governments and others.
This database aims to:

  • Compile information on creams that were tested to verify their mercury levels (if any) and make them publicly available to consumers and governments through one unique tool
  • Help consumers avoid creams suspected of containing harmful levels of mercury
  • Support governments to better regulate, control and eventually effectively enforce the legislation(s) banning such products
  • Encourage public authorities to contribute to the list or agree to circulate and spread it with the aim of totally phasing mercury-added skin creams at global level.
  • Build strong visibility of the problem, so retailers and producers stop adding mercury to cosmetics and internet platforms take responsibility for the quality and safety of the products they make available on their platforms.
The database is compiling three main sources of information:
  • Results from past testing carried out by the ZMWG
  • Alert systems from different sources (The EU Safety gate, ASEAN, etc.)
  • Detention lists from national governments
This database is a work in progress. New testing will be made, new alerts will come up. Hence, the database will continue to be documented on a regular basis, to the extend possible.

ZMWG samplings

Since 2017, the Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) have analyzed mercury content in skin-lightening products on a regular basis:
  • In 2017 and 2018, the ZMWG purchased 338 SLPs from local shops and from e-commerce platforms in 22 different countries. These products were analyzed and 10% were found to contain mercury levels above 1 ppm (part per million), the limit established by the Minamata Convention and followed by an increasing number of governments.
  • A follow-up study was conducted by the ZMWG in 2019, targeting again the high-mercury products identified during the 2017-2018 study, as well as others identified by additional government agencies and researchers. Of the 166 samples analyzed, 56% had mercury concentrations over 1 ppm.
  • In 2021, a list of 86 skin-lightening creams considered to be potentially “high-mercury” products (containing at least 1 ppm mercury) was compiled, based on the 2017-2019 ZMWG studies, and supplemented by a number of governments’ state alert or detention lists of mercury containing products. 271 samples were collected by NGOs in 17 countries, and tested; 129 were found to have mercury levels over 1ppm.
Sampling protocol and Methodology

More information about the methodology used and sampling protocols in each sampling round can be found on its dedicated page and respective reports: Mercury-Added Skin-Lightening Creams Campaign – Zero Mercury. The mercury concentration of SLPs was determined by X-ray fluorescence (XRF) or laboratory based Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometer (AAS) analysis, or both. Direct analysis of samples via XRF is recognized as the fastest, most straightforward and generally reliable method to assess the mercury content of SLPs. However, while most SLP samples are fairly homogeneous, some may contain flakes or chunks of mercury salts, which may compromise the accuracy and reproducibility of an XRF test that generally involves only minimal manipulation of the sample. In all cases an AAS analysis may be relied upon to provide an accurate reading.

Alert systems

Alert systems can also support the implementation of regulations on illegal high mercury skin-lightening products via the release a warning or alert that can be rapidly issued to customs services, importers, retailers and consumers, as relevant. EU Safety Gate (previously named ‘RAPEX’) - A functional and effective regional information sharing system is the Safety Gate of the EU. The EU rapid alert system for dangerous and non-food products was established under Article 12 of Directive 2001/95/EC on general product safety and its notification system. It enables a quick exchange of information between EU/European Economic Area (EEA) member states and the European Commission about non-food products posing a potential risk to the health and safety of consumers. RAPEX plays an important role in the area of product safety. It complements other actions taken both at national and at EU level to ensure a high level of product safety in the EU. The Safety Gate data helps to:
  • (a) prevent and restrict the supply of dangerous products;
  • (b) monitor the effectiveness and consistency of market surveillance and enforcement activities carried out by Member State authorities;
  • (c) identify needs and provide a basis for action at EU level;
  • and (d) facilitate consistent enforcement of the EU product safety requirements and therefore contribute to the smooth functioning of the single market.
ASEAN - The ASEAN (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam), has also put in place a regional information sharing and alert system on product safety, covering cosmetics, pharmaceutical products, dietary supplements, and related products such as traditional medicines. In the event that a safety concern arises in any ASEAN country, a PMAS coordinator from that country will notify the agency’s International Affairs Office ensuring the information is distributed to all other ASEAN countries. The PMAS will exchange information on:
  • Products for which registration has been cancelled, suspended, or withdrawn based on safety issues;
  • Products recalled from the market due to quality defects with serious public health implications;
  • Products found to be adulterated and associated with serious public health implications;
  • Significant label changes, involving safety, that are initiated by the regulators;
  • New restrictions on usage; • Exchange of “Dear Healthcare Professional” letters, media releases related to drug safety, and Adverse Drug Reaction bulletin publications; and
  • Adverse Event Reporting of cosmetic products.
More can be found in our Enforcement report: Enforcement-measures-to-restrict-high-mercury-cosmetic-products-under-the-Minamata-Convention.pdf (zeromercury.org)

Detention lists

Detention lists are usually issued by governments and used to support the implementation of regulations on hazardous products, including illegal high mercury skin-lightening products. A suspect product can be included in a list of prohibited products – a so-called “detention list”. Examples of detention lists issued by:
Please note: The EEB/ZMWG takes no responsibility for inaccuracies in the viewer due to errors in the source data. The EEB/ZMWG cannot be held accountable for any errors in the data, which is based on one time testing and/or is available on line by governments. By proceeding, you agree that the EEB/ZMWG cannot be held liable for any damage incurred by the use of this data.
Please also note that:
  • The absence of a specific product or brand does not indicate the safety of that specific brand
  • The absence of mercury in one tested cream does not indicate its non-toxicity. Mercury may not be part of the ingredients, yet the cream may contain other dangerous chemicals such as hydroquinone, etc.
  • In most of cases, original and counterfeit products could not be distinguished in this database.