(NaturalNews) In violation of federal law, skin-whitening creams are still being widely made containing the neurotoxic metal mercury, according to an investigation by the Chicago Tribune.
"I'm shocked and speechless," said Chicago dermatologist Jonith Breadon. "I just assumed since [mercury] was banned in the United States, it never got in. But clearly that isn't true."
Skin-whitening creams are increasingly popular among people of African, Asian or indigenous North or South American descent, due to the social status conveyed by lighter skin. In addition, people of all ethnic backgrounds sometimes use the creams to lighten age spots or simply to change their skin tones. Sales of the products are expected to increase 18 percent by 2015, to a total of $76 million per year.
Mercury has long been a common product in skin-whiteners, due to the metal's low cost and its ability to block the production of the skin pigment melanin. Yet mercury is a neurotoxin that can produce symptoms from blurred vision to brain damage to organ failure and death, and it is easily absorbed through the skin. It was these concerns that led the FDA to ban mercury from skin-whitening creams in 1990.
But the Tribune's" tests of 50 such creams, purchased off the Internet or from stores across Chicago, uncovered six with mercury levels higher than those allowed by law. Five of these had concentrations higher than 6,000 parts per million, enough to cause kidney damage with repeated use, including one with concentrations of 30,000 parts per million.
And FDA spokesperson admitted that with fewer than 500 inspectors assigned to review imports, it is impossible for the agency to keep tainted materials from entering the country. In addition, some of the companies found to have mercury in their products noted that the products might have been counterfeited; the spread of Internet shopping has made counterfeit cosmetics a growing problem in the United States.
Other dangerous ingredients in skin-whiteners include hydroquinone -- a bleach and carcinogen -- and steroids.