Mercury poisoning from skin creams

Several different sizes and colors of unlabeled skin cream containers
Creams come in all types of containers

Certain skin creams from Mexico have caused multiple cases of mercury poisoning throughout California. The information on this page was developed by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) in response to these incidents.

These non-commercial, homemade creams are used for:
  • Fading freckles, blemishes, and age spots
  • Lightening the skin
  • Treating acne

People purchased the skin cream products in California through informal networks of friends or brought them into the U.S. from Mexico. These products usually come in plastic containers that have no label or hand-made labels (see photo). Skin cream products that contain more than 1 part per million of mercury cannot legally be sold in the U.S.

CDPH Fact Sheets

Mercury in skin creams from Mexico can make you or your child sick (1 page)

El mercurio de las cremas para la piel hechas en México puede afectar su salud y la de sus hijos (1 página)

Health Alert: Mercury poisoning linked to use of skin-lightening or acne creams from Mexico (5 pages)

Poisoning cases have included several children and babies who did not use the skin creams themselves but were exposed to mercury through contact with family members who used the products. CDPH's Food and Drug Laboratory measured mercury in homemade skin creams and found levels thousands of times higher than is legally allowed. 

Elevated levels of mercury have also been found in commercial skin-lightening or acne creams, germicidal soaps, and other products that have been imported to the U.S. from China, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and other countries. Users of these products may purchase them at some markets in California and other states.  Sometimes people purchase the creams in other countries and bring them home to the U.S.  In some of these commercial products, mercury may be in the ingredient list on the label as “mercury”, “mercurio,” or “calomel” (mercurous chloride). However, in most cases, mercury is not disclosed as an ingredient on the label.

To find out if dangerous products are sold in California, CDPH tested over 100 imported skin-lightening creams and other products for mercury in 2013. Most of the items were purchased at ethnic markets in San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. A few products were purchased online. Four products purchased from markets contained very high amounts (up to 29,000 parts per million) of mercury.

 

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