Most of us have heard about mercury (aka Quicksilver) — a highly toxic heavy metal that is used in thermostats, barometers, electrical goods, and even dental fillings, etc. But, did you know you can also find mercury in some skincare products?
First, we need to understand what mercury is and where is it from.
Mercury is a chemical element with the symbol Hg and atomic number 80, formerly named hydrargyrum. At room temperature, mercury is liquid form, rarely occurs free in nature. Its mineraloid is often found in the ore cinnabar or calomel, where mercury can be obtained by going through a heating and condensing process. It is also occasionally found in silver. Mercury is most commonly mined in Spain, Yugoslavia, US, and Italy. However, Spain, in particular, is known for its high-quality mercury.
This metal is a poor conductor of heat as compared with other metals, but it is a fair conductor of electricity. That’s why it is often used in the manufacturing of industrial chemicals and used for manufacturing electrical and electronic application. It is also widely used in thermometers and barometers for its high coefficient of expansion, making the slightest change in temperature notable. Vapor lamps that light up highways at night are also made with mercury elements.
Mercury is so widely used that you can even find it in skincare products! And that is the alarming thing.
This silvery-white liquid is a highly toxic heavy metal, comes in the form of liquid or gas. It is dangerous and hazardous to be used on the skin, so using skincare, cosmetics or personal care products that contain mercury is definitely not a good option!
Back in the ancient days, the ancient Greeks used mercury in ointments and the Romans used it in cosmetics. They came up with an expression — “mad as a hatter”, which is said to have referred to hatters who suffered brain damage. It is the result of the use of mercury in felt hat-making when mercury nitrate is used in the removal of fur from animal skins, causing the substance to be laced on the fur and eventually on your skin, body, and organs.
This is a glimpse of why cosmetics and skincare products that contain mercury is bad for you.
In its pure metal form, mercury is not deadly, but in compounds such as mercuric chloride, it is lethal. To understand why it is still used in cosmetics and skin cares, we must know that mercury in cosmetics exists in two forms: inorganic and organic form.
Inorganic and Organic Mercury: Where Do You Find It in Cosmetics and Skincare Products
Inorganic mercury (e.g. ammoniated mercury) is used in skin lightening soaps and creams. Companies use mercury in products because mercury salts inhibit the formation of melanin, resulting in lighter skin tone, giving it a skin lightening effect with the promises of reducing pigmentation, dark spots, and freckles. It can also be found in antiseptic soaps! Do be more aware and alert when purchasing antiseptic soap and watch out for mercury.
Organic mercury compounds [thiomersal (ethyl mercury) and phenylmercuric salts] are used as cosmetic preservatives in eye makeup cleansing products and mascara. It is used to help elongate the shelf life of a product.
However, due to the increase of awareness against mercury and its adverse health reaction, some manufacturers are no longer using mercury as a preservative in mascaras and eye makeup cleansing products. With that said, there are still many countries that allow the sale of makeup products containing mercury compounds. It makes those countries that have banned cosmetics and skincare products with mercury, still exposed to the availability and obtainability of such products with mercury. They purchase it from the internet and ‘smuggling’ it in to sell to those unwary of the harm it would cause.
The main adverse effect of the use of inorganic mercury found in skin lightening soaps and creams is kidney damage, as stated by the World Health Organization (WHO). Some mercury compounds can be absorbed through the skin when applied topically. It would accumulate in the body and may result in allergic reactions, skin irritation, or worse, neurotoxicity.
What Harm Can Mercury Do To Us?
Chronic exposure and accumulation to mercury compounds can result in a variety of symptoms and adverse reactions. Below are the top 22 harmful symptoms of mercury overdose in cosmetics and skincare products on what it can do to us.
- Memory loss
- Changes in hearing, vision, and taste
- Kidney damage
- Skin rashes
- Skin discoloration
- Reduction in skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections
- Nerve damage – pain or numbness in the hands, arms, legs, and feet
- Liver damage
It is highly advised for pregnant mums to avoid using products that contain mercury as mercury has a tendency to accumulate in one’s body. Its adverse health reaction may cause pregnancy complications and may increase the risk of development problems in infants. It is also easily transferred to infants, babies and, children through breastmilk, making them easily exposed to a higher risk of brain and nervous systems damage. Therefore, it is very important for them not to be exposed as their brains and nervous systems are still developing.
How Mercury is Harmful to Our Environment
Unfortunately, these health risks are not only limited to people who use products that contain mercury. The gaseous form of mercury (vapor) can get into the air and cause harm to other people and animals. Also, mercury in skin-care products and soap would eventually end up in wastewater via your shower or bath. Through this, mercury is then released into the environment where sea creatures such as fish, would absorb it!
This is why some would advise pregnant women and new moms to try avoiding eating fish, especially fishes such as king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish, ahi tuna, and bigeye tuna as they contain high levels of mercury. Women who are pregnant or nursing or who plan to become pregnant within a year should avoid eating these fish. So should children younger than six!
Even though we can’t completely avoid mercury in our lives, we should not be consciously adding our exposure to mercury. Just by making a simple choice and decision to avoid products that contain mercury would be a significant way to decrease our exposure to it.
Mercury in Different Forms of Names
Be aware of the ingredients in the cosmetics and skincare products that we are choosing to use. Avoid those that contain mercury or mercury in other forms of names.
- mercuric iodide
- mercurous chloride
- ammoniated mercury
- amide chloride of mercury
- cinnabaris (mercury sulfide)
- hydrargyri oxydum rubrum (mercury oxide)
- mercury iodide.
We have got you covered if you are looking for products to target dark spots! Cosmetic chemist, Ginger King, recommends looking for these ingredients instead to reduce dark spots: vitamin C, licorice extract, and mulberry extract. Choose skincare products that contain natural ingredients as such for that skin lightening effect!
If you would like to if your cosmetics and skin care products contain any mercury, ALS Malaysia offers mercury testing for cosmetic manufacturers and consumers. Do check them out at http://www.alsglobal.com.my.
Remember, the choice is yours to make informed decisions on what you apply on your skin every day through your cosmetics, skincare, or personal care products. Learn to know your ingredients to understand that the products that you use are safe and clean! Clean beauty is possible when we make an effort.