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Products, packaging and ingredients

  • Skin lightening products come in different forms, including soaps and creams; the soap is often sold as “antiseptic soap”. These products are supposed to be applied to the skin to dry overnight. Women use the soap to wash their hair, arms or face or their entire body. It is reported that some women use these products for as long as 20 years.
  • The soaps come in bar form and are sold individually in boxes. The creams are generally packaged in tubes or jars. The soaps contain approximately 1–3% mercury iodide, and the creams are composed of 1–10% mercury ammonium.  Some soap products tested contained mercury at concentrations up to 31 mg/kg, whereas cream products had mercury concentrations as high as 33 000 mg/kg.
  • Products with very high levels of mercury contamination look grey or cream coloured.
  • The amount or concentration of mercury in a product may be labelled on the packaging or in the ingredient list. Names to look for include mercury, Hg, mercuric iodide, mercurous chloride, ammoniated mercury, amide chloride of mercury, quicksilver, cinnabaris (mercury sulfide), hydrargyri oxydum rubrum (mercury oxide), mercury iodide or “poison”; directions to avoid contact with silver, gold, rubber, aluminium and jewellery may also indicate the presence of mercury. However, companies selling products that contain mercury, do not always list it as an ingredient.


Health effects and how to measure exposure

  • The main adverse effect of the inorganic mercury contained in skin lightening soaps and creams is kidney damage. Mercury in skin lightening products may also cause skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring, as well as a reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections. Other effects include anxiety, depression or psychosis and peripheral neuropathy.
  • The medical literature reports specific instances of individuals suffering from the aforementioned health effects following exposure to mercury through skin lightening creams and soaps. One case report describes a 34-year-old Chinese woman who developed nephrotic syndrome, a condition marked by high levels of protein in the urine. The mercury levels in her blood and urine returned to normal one month and nine months, respectively, after she stopped using the skin lightening cream.
  • One study indicated a large proportion of nephrotic syndrome among African women using ammoniated mercuric chloride–containing skin lightening creams for periods ranging from one month to three years. Over three quarters of the women who stopped using the creams went into remission.
  • Mercury in soaps, creams and other cosmetic products is eventually discharged into wastewater. The mercury then enters the environment, where it becomes methylated and enters the food-chain as the highly toxic methylmercury in fish. Pregnant women who consume fish containing methylmercury transfer the mercury to their fetuses, which can later result in abnormal development of the nervous systems in the children.
  • Exposure to inorganic mercury can be quantified through measurements in blood and urine.

To be continued next week………………………..

Thanks for being part of this discourse today.

Food for thought……

The choice is yours……

Make the right choice of beauty care products……

Remain informed….

“Never forget that intelligence rules the world and ignorance carries the burden. Therefore, remove yourself as far as possible from ignorance and seek as far as possible to be intelligent!……Marcus Garvey

Remember to live beautifully, live passionately, live freely.

Be social!



1.UNEP (2008). Mercury in products and wastes. Geneva, United Nations Environment

Programme, Division of Technology, Industry and Economics, Chemicals Branch

( d1_UK_Web.pdf).

2. Glahder CM, Appel PWU, Asmund G (1999). Mercury in soap in Tanzania. Copenhagen, Ministry of Environment and Energy, National Environmental Research Institute (NERI Technical Report No. 306; 

3. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (2011). Mercury in soaps and creams. New York, NY, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene


4. IPCS (2003). Elemental mercury and inorganic mercury compounds: human health aspects. Geneva, World Health Organization, International Programme on Chemical Safety (Concise International Chemical Assessment Document 50;

5. MDH (2011). Skin-lightening products found to contain mercury. Minnesota Department of Health (

6. Texas DSHS (2011). DSHS warns of mercury poisoning linked to Mexican beauty cream. News release, 1 September 2011. Texas Department of State Health Services (

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