Call-to-Action: Internet Sellers Must Stop Toxic Trade

Over the past decade, public health experts and activists have gone to great lengths to get mercury-based skin lightening products off the market. Forward-thinking governments like New York City and Minnesota check store shelves and warn the public not to use any skin lightener that could contain mercury. Still, banning mercury isn’t enough to protect the public, as we discovered recently when we partnered with the Mercury Policy Project to check for toxic cosmetic sales online.

In reality, consumers usually assume that products we use are safe. We think that by the time a product hits the shelves, its manufacturer has followed strict guidelines, conducted robust tests, and navigated long approval processes within the federal government. While this might hold true for some products, cosmetics have largely been unregulated, with the last federal policy passing in 1938. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration has very little power over body care products and currently only prohibits or restricts 11 ingredients. Mercury is one of the chemicals on that very short list.

That is why we were surprised to find these products widely available on Amazon and eBay.

Our testing identified 19 creams with mercury levels up to 30,000 times greater than the legal limit. This means creams meet the definition of hazardous waste, and aren’t even safe for a landfill. Yet many people apply these products directly on their skin daily.

Skin lightening products are marketed around the globe, primarily to women. Mercury is one of the cheapest skin lightening ingredients and the most toxic. Exposures from skin creams can cause serious effects, such as nervous system damage and harm to the developing fetus. None of the products we detected list mercury on the label, so people have no warning that they are harmful.

In Minnesota, advocate Amira Adawe of the Beautywell Project has found that mercury-based skin lighteners are a major health risk within the Somali-American immigrant community. In addition to keeping toxic products out of stores, she hosts a radio show to educate the community about mercury risks and push back against “colorism”—the prejudice against people with darker skin tones that leads to harmful exposures for the women who use these creams.

The global Minamata treaty bans the sale of mercury-based cosmetics after 2020. But in the meantime, cosmetics exposures remain a global problem. A companion report issued today by a global coalition called the Zero Mercury Work Group detected 34 mercury containing creams for sale in six countries: Bangladesh, Mauritius, Dominican Republic, Philippines, Indonesia, Trinidad, and Tabago. Some are the same brands as those we purchased from Amazon and eBay and are made in Pakistan or India. Others do not list the country of origin.

As Amira rightly notes, mercury in skin-lightening creams harms women of color or women from the global south and their families disproportionately. These products bring mercury into homes where exposure through directly skin exposure is significant, but also leaves traces throughout the home with additional risks for children and other family. The fact that these products are wittingly marketed to women of color with undisclosed, illegal, and dangerous ingredients is an injustice, and Amazon ought to be held accountable for furthering the reach of these toxic products.   

While forward-thinking states are working to end sales and educate the public ,they have no power over a major route for these illegal products to enter the country—online sales.

Together with 51 environmental, health and justice organizations, we are asking Amazon and eBay to stop selling illegal skin lighteners. Amazon was alerted to the problem in 2014, when advocates sued it to stop the sale of mercury-based products. It claims to remove illegal products when notified. But this is clearly not working. All of the skin lighteners we purchased had been reported to have high mercury content by New York City, the state of Minnesota, or other government agencies.

Based on pressure from the activist “Mind the Store” campaign, Amazon recently announced a new chemicals management policy, in which it committed to phasing out several hazardous chemicals in its proprietary products. Now we are asking Amazon to implement its own policy and keep toxic and illegal cosmetics out of the United States. They can do this by removing the products we found for sale, monitoring government lists of illegal skin lighteners, and requiring vendors to certify that their skin lighteners are in compliance with U.S. and international law.

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