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01-23-12 What does mercury have to do with beauty?

Question of the Week
January 23, 2012
What does mercury have to do with beauty?
On September 2, 2011, the Texas department of health issued a news release to make the public aware of the presence of inorganic mercury in beauty creams such as Crema Aguamary. These creams are from Mexico and advertised as beauty creams, blemish removers, anti-aging creams, and skin lightening creams.  This isn’t a novel idea that just started in the 21st century.   Mercury has been added to soaps, creams, and ointments as an agent to bleach skin in areas of hyperpigmentation for many moons. 
Unfortunately, the active ingredient of mercury is usually not listed on the label or is listed as “calomel” which is mercurous chloride; thus many users of the product may not know that they are exposing themselves to inorganic mercury.  Test samples of the Aguamary face cream contained concentrations of inorganic mercury ranging from 56,000 to 122,000 parts per million (ppm) and eye cream samples contain from 239 up to 6,780 ppm Hg.  The FDA tolerance level for mercury in cosmetics is 1 ppm. 
Inorganic mercury can be absorbed transdermally. This can result in toxicity that may result in neurologic, neuropsychiatric and possibly renal effects. In 1996, there was a product called Crema de Belleza that was distributed in the southwest and had elevated mercuric chloride in the compound. There were cases of elevated mercury levels in children of family members who used the cream-unclear as to the route or method of exposure.In addition, there have been reports of elevated levels of mercury in infants of mothers who used these creams during pregnancy. Yikes!
This question prepared by:  Saralyn Williams, MD  Medical Toxicologist