Be wary of lotions and lightening creams produced outside of the United States, warns the Food and Drug Administration. Several states have reported mercury poisoning cases linked to such skin products.
Over the past three years, 35 skin care products containing elevated mercury levels have been tracked by the FDA and state health officials. The products are manufactured abroad and sold illegally in the United States -- often in shops in Latino, Asian, African or Middle Eastern neighborhoods and online. In many cases, the tainted products came into the country via a foreign relative.
That was the case for a 39-year old woman in Northern California, who had more than 100 times the average amount of mercury in her urine and had symptoms of mercury poisoning, according to the California Department of Public Health. For three years, she and her husband had been using an unlabeled mercury-containing face cream brought into the country from Mexico by a relative.
Cases of elevated mercury levels in people using contaminated, imported skin care products have also been reported in Maryland, Minnesota, Texas, Virginia and New York.
The health hazards
"Exposure to mercury can have serious health consequences," wrote Charles Lee, M.D., a senior medical advisor at the FDA, in the consumer warning. "It can damage the kidneys and the nervous system, and interfere with the development of the brain in unborn children and very young children."
The primary health effects, and symptoms, of mercury poisoning include: tremors; emotional changes (e.g., mood swings, irritability, nervousness, excessive shyness); insomnia; neuromuscular changes (such as weakness, muscle atrophy, twitching); headaches; numbness and tingling in hands, feet, and around mouth; and changes in vision and hearing, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Higher mercury exposure may also lead to kidney and respiratory failure and even death.
Even those who don't use the product can be at risk for mercury poisoning, says FDA toxicologist Mike Bolger. "People -- particularly children -- can get mercury in their bodies from breathing in mercury vapors if a member of the household uses a skin cream containing mercury." And mercury can also be spread by touch, as illustrated in the Northern California case. A four-year-old child and other family members who did not use the cream also had elevated levels of mercury in their bodies.
Red flag products
Before you slather on that imported must-have beauty lotion, look for these warning signs:
If you've been exposed: