Skin-Bleaching Products Are Unsafe and Racist

Skin-lightening cosmetics are in the spotlight once again after a California woman's hospitalization.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
September 30, 2019, 6:53pm
Photo by Simon Maina via Getty Images

It feels safe to say the demand for skin-lightening products will exist as long as colorism does, too. But the recent hospitalization of a California woman who used a mercury-tainted face cream encapsulates the dangers of using skin-lightening cosmetics—as well as the need for caution when buying cosmetics manufactured outside of the regulatory reach of the FDA. According to a report by the Daily Beast, an unnamed woman in Sacramento, California remains semi-comatose after using a Pond’s "Rejuveness" face cream manufactured in Mexico and tainted with a form of mercury known for causing nervous system damage. While the cream appears to have been tampered with, high mercury concentrations in skincare products, and specifically skin-lightening products, have been an issue for some time, and one that regularly evades FDA regulations.


When it comes to monitoring internationally manufactured cosmetics, the FDA requires that all imported products meet the same standards American cosmetics are held to. But the agency lacks the bandwidth necessary to proactively enforce its standards, and instead issues “Import Alerts” to inspectors in order to update them on “trends in violations.” The FDA It also doesn’t require cosmetic importers to register with it, as long as the cosmetics they are importing fall outside the FDA designation of “drugs” and don’t make claims about anti-aging, acne treating or hair restoring properties. Everything else falls into a gray area that may not be FDA-compliant, but isn’t necessarily getting the regulatory attention it might deserve.

Fair skin is associated with beauty, wealth, and status on a cross-cultural scale: a 2004 survey by the World Health Organization, apparently the most recent study of its scope, found almost 40 percent of the female respondents in Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia and Korea used skin lighteners, with a peak of 77 percent in Nigeria. More recently, American celebrities like Blac Chyna and Azealia Banks both received backlash for their endorsement of skin-lightening products, which Banks later revoked. Lighter skin has been linked to increased job opportunities and preferential treatment by law enforcement, even for white people (!), in the U.S. According to Businessweek, the global skin-lightening market is worth $20 billion, a figure which encompasses “legitimate and safe (or safer) products, counterfeits of those products, and the cheap soaps and creams” that take risky chemical shortcuts in order to achieve whitening effects.

Mercury is a common ingredient in skin-lightening products due to its melanin-suppressing properties. It’s also banned at a concentration higher than 1 ppm in cosmetics manufactured in the U.S., and the FDA flagged it as an ingredient to watch out for in imported cosmetics. “Because of the known hazards of mercury, its questionable efficacy as a skin-bleaching agent, and the availability of effective and less toxic non-mercurial preservatives, there is no justification for the use of mercury in skin-bleaching preparations or its use as a preservative in cosmetics,” read the FDA’s current regulations around the element. Hydroquinone, a skin-lightening agent with side effects comparable to mercury poisoning, made headlines in the U.K. after it was found in a number of illicit market products for sale in retail stores. The agent is available over the counter or via prescription in both the U.K. and the U.S., but is otherwise banned.

Even though we may be on the comedown from Peak Skincare, it’s worth digging into the ingredients in any foreign products you incorporate into your routine and keeping an eye out for Import Refusal Reports—the FDA issued 61 refusals for cosmetics in August 2019. Make sure you’re buying from an accredited vendor, research anything you don’t recognize on the ingredients list (do not let something touch your face if it doesn’t have an ingredients list!), and check that your product is properly sealed on arrival. And be especially careful if you’re doing your beauty globe-trotting on a site like Amazon, where international versions of “Rejuveness” remain for sale for less than $18.

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