In the past few years, state and federal investigators have turned up 35 skin products containing mercury. And just two years ago, an Alameda County woman and other members of her family, including a 4-year-old boy, all tested high for mercury after using a tainted product.
"These items may work well, but they give you beauty at a tremendous cost," says Gordon Vrdoljak, a research scientist at the California Department of Public Health. A team of investigators at the department recently launched a one-year study to determine the extent of the problem. "It's a concern. You really only want to have minimal amounts of mercury in your system, like maybe a part per billion. That's one part in a billion. And this has got about 4 percent mercury."
The FDA says mercury can cause damage to the kidneys and nervous system and even interfere with the development of the brain in the unborn and in young children. Children can become contaminated just by touching a parent or even a countertop exposed to mercury.
"Mercury can also vaporize or get into the air from mercury containing skin creams and the child may breathe the mercury in the air, and finally mercury can get into dust or food," says Dr. Rupali Das with the California Department of Public Health. She says state investigators are currently testing for mercury and other chemicals in cosmetics purchased throughout California sold at ethnic markets and swap meets. "In our experience, the skin care products that contain mercury have all been imported in some way."
Sometimes it comes in by way of personal luggage. Other times it's trucked or flown in for sale at the store.
"As a consumer, I definitely want to avoid any skin creams that contain mercury or any variation of mercury, skin creams that don't have any labels, or labels aren't available in English," says Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
"Or if the label doesn't contain ingredients, it's best not to use the product," said Das.
We found a skin cream matching that description and two other products whose labels were primarily in a foreign language. We sent all three products to a certified lab and all three tested for trace amounts of mercury, but less than the one part per million allowed by the FDA.
Results from the more in-depth state study won't be known for another year.
"There is [sic] always questions, and then I would say there's probably a handful of ingredients in cosmetics that issues have been raised about," says John Hurson, vice president of the Personal Care Products Council, an industry trade group. Some of those ingredients include the known carcinogen formaldehyde in some shampoo, lead in lipstick, and toluene in nail polish which is suspected of causing headaches. Europe has banned 1,200 chemicals; the United States only 10. "If they aren't safe for use, they shouldn't be in the product," says Hurson.
"We need to update the 1938 cosmetics laws and give the FDA real authority to oversee this $60 billion dollar industry," says Malkan.
How far any new regulation should go is a subject of controversy. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics supports phasing out chemicals that cause cancer and reproductive harm and full disclosure of ingredients. But the trade group calls that overreaching, and supports legislation calling for greater oversight and review of products.