1 April 2021, Quezon City. The zero waste and chemical safety advocacy group EcoWaste Coalition told a global audience about the importance of embracing one’s natural skin color to avoid being exposed to mercury, a toxic chemical, in some skin bleaching, lightening or whitening cosmetics being sold in the market.
“Accepting our natural skin tone is the cheapest and safest way to safeguard our women from hazardous substances like mercury in some skin whitening cosmetics. It‘s time to shun colorism and racism, and affirm that natural is beautiful,” said Thony Dizon, Chemical Safety Campaigner, EcoWaste Coalition.
Dizon stressed this point at a webinar on “Gender & Chemicals in Cosmetics” held last Tuesday as part of a webinar series on gender equality in various chemical sectors organized by the Berlin-based MSP Institute to promote gender integration in the “Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) Beyond 2020” process.
According to Dizon, skin whitening has become a big concern, especially in the Philippines, because of the proliferation of products without the required market authorization, some of which are contraband cosmetics containing undisclosed mercury content.
Creams, lotions, soaps, capsules and even intravenous products are sold to whiten not only the face, but also other parts of the body, including arms, underarms, body, teeth and even vaginal lips, he noted.
“It is also a concern because the marketing of skin whitening products has wittingly or unwittingly added to the prejudice or discrimination against people, particularly women, with dark skin tone,” he said.
Despite being banned in cosmetic product formulations under the ASEAN Cosmetic Directive and the Minamata Convention on Mercury, unscrupulous manufacturers still add mercury in some skin lightening cosmetics to help in inhibiting the production of melanin pigment leading to a “fairer” skin tone.
The mercury treaty, which entered into force in 2019, phased out in 2020 the manufacture, import and export of cosmetics, including skin lightening products, with mercury above one part per million (ppm).
To demonstrate this persistent problem, the group cited the results of its recent investigation on mercury-containing skin whitening cosmetics being traded in online shopping and social media sites, which netted 40 dangerous products from China, Malaysia, Pakistan, Taiwan and Thailand. Of these 40 non-compliant products, 38 had mercury in excess of 1,000 ppm, 25 with over 5,000 ppm, 19 with more than 15,000 ppm, and 5 with mercury above 25,000 ppm.
At the webinar, the EcoWaste Coalition shared its campaign experience on mercury-added skin whitening cosmetics, which it does through the conduct of periodic test buys, screening of samples for mercury using a handheld X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) device, using the data generated to raise public awareness about the hazards of mercury, and reaching out to national and local government agencies to push for law enforcement actions.
To prevent mercury exposure through the application of tainted skin whitening cosmetics, the EcoWaste Coalition advised the public to heed the following suggestions:
1. Take pride in your natural skin tone.
2. If “fairer” skin tone is really preferred, opt for mercury-safe products that are authorized by the health authorities.
3. Insist on your right to truthful information, including full disclosure of a product’s chemical content.
4. Carefully read the product label and reject products with zero or incomplete labels or with information in foreign characters.
“The safest way to protect women and other consumers against the health-damaging effects of mercury in cosmetics is to accept and embrace our natural skin tone and avoid using skin bleaching, lightening or whitening products,” the group insisted.
Exposure to mercury in cosmetics can cause skin rashes, discoloration and scarring, lessen skin’s resistance to bacterial and mycotic skin disorders, and damage the kidneys, the brain and the central nervous system.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “mercury in soaps, creams and other cosmetic products is eventually discharged into wastewater,” saying that “the mercury then enters the environment, where it becomes methylated and can enter the food chain as highly toxic methylmercury in fish.”
“Pregnant women who consume fish containing methylmercury transfer the mercury to their fetuses, which can later result in neurodevelopmental deficits in the children,” the WHO warned.