Doctors and Environmentalists Back Intensified Action vs. Illegal Trade of Mercury-Laced Skin Whitening Cosmetics

Professional dermatologists and toxics activists have joined forces to boost efforts to bring the illegal trade in mercury-containing skin whitening cosmetics to a close.

In an unprecedented move, the leaders of the Philippine Dermatological Society (PDS) and the EcoWaste Coalition on Thursday morning signed a joint statement to express support for intensified government action to end “the unlawful dumping of mercury-added cosmetics into the domestic market.”

Dr. Daisy K. Ismael, President of the PDS and Sonia Mendoza, President of the EcoWaste Coalition, said the illegal trade “continues to spread and persist despite sustained efforts by the government, the health sector,  civil society and the media to expose and put a stop to this wrongdoing.”

“While women of diverse socio-economic backgrounds use various cosmetics to achieve flawless porcelain skin, poor women unduly suffer from the side effects of using cheap but unregistered skin whitening products with banned ingredients such as mercury,” they noted.

In line with the objective of the Minamata Convention on Mercury "to protect the human health and the environment from anthropogenic releases of mercury and mercury compounds," the PDS and the EcoWaste Coalition “called upon all stakeholders to support intensified regulatory action by the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) against skin whitening cosmetics with no market authorization and containing mercury and other hazardous chemicals as well as biological contaminants.” 

They asked the FDA “to prosecute violators to the full extent of the law.”

They further “urge(d) all law enforcement agencies, particularly the Bureau of Customs (BOC), National Bureau of Investigation and the Philippine National Police, as well as local government units, to rally behind the FDA and carry out effective and supportive measures to combat the illegal trade of mercury-added cosmetics.” 

Specifically, they asked the BOC “to search and destroy these illegal cosmetics at the ports of entry and duly charge the offenders,” adding that “efforts should also be made by the BOC to identify the suppliers of these products in the country of origin and work cooperatively with authorities in those countries to restrict production and prevent cross border trade.”

Both groups also “urge(d) consumers to be on the alert against contraband cosmetics with hidden mercury content that can be detrimental to the health of users and non-users, noting that the adverse effects of mercury exposure are subtle and increase over time.”

“For skin health and safety, we further appeal to consumers to patronize registered cosmetics sold in legitimate retail outlets and to support early skin disease detection and prevention through proper dermatological care,” they said.

“We implore all Filipinos to be wary of the dark side of whitening one's skin with mercury-added cosmetics, and to be happy and proud of our beautiful natural brown skin complexion,” they stated.

Despite the health and environmental hazards these skin whitening products pose, the groups noted the following lapses in their joint statement: “None listed mercury as an active ingredient.  None provided any health warning that mercury can enter the body through skin absorption, ingestion or inhalation of the vapors, and that young children and pregnant women are particularly sensitive to the toxic effects of mercury.  None warned that mercury exposure can damage the kidneys, the brain and the central nervous system and cause fetal abnormalities if used in pregnancy, and that the skin itself can suffer from uneven pigmentation, rashes and scarring.  None cautioned that children can ingest the mercury by coming into contact with the skin, clothes and household items contaminated with mercury.” 

A market investigation conducted by the EcoWaste Coalition in 50 cities shows that 316 of the  355 samples of unregistered skin whitening facial creams exceeded the mercury limit of 1 ppm under the ASEAN Cosmetics Directive.

Of 316 tainted samples, 287 had mercury  above  1,000  ppm,  44  had  mercury above  5,000 and 19  had mercury above 25,000, with  one  sample having 96,100 ppm of mercury. Some of the samples with extremely high mercury concentrations would also exceed the government's toxicity limit of 0.1 milligram/liter (mg/l) and get classified as hazardous chemical waste.

A follow-up vapor analysis on 25 of these samples shows that these illegal cosmetics emit dangerous levels of mercury vapor from 35 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) to 260 ug/m3, way above the 1 ug/m3 "acceptable level" for residential setting and also exceeding the 10 ug/m3 level at which the recommended action by the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is "isolation of contamination from residents or evacuation of residents."