‘Prime’ time to stop online sales of illegal mercury skin-lightening products

Groups make recommendations on verge of UN kick-off meeting on ‘Eliminating Mercury Skin Lightening Products’ at WHO-HQ in Geneva

Geneva, Switzerland — Several mercury watchdog groups are calling on Amazon.com (and other e-platforms) to stop all sales of skin-lightening products (SLPs) if they cannot stop marketing often illegal high mercury products. Their call comes just ahead of a United Nations kick-off meeting on “Eliminating Mercury Skin Lightening Products” at the World Health Organization Head Quarters in Geneva.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury bans the manufacture and trade of SLPs with a content of over 1ppm of mercury and numerous governments around the world have adopted such measures. In the autumn of 2022, the Mercury Policy Project purchased suspect SLPs available on Amazon.com and 19 of 21 purchased creams were found to have mercury concentrations over the legal limit of 1 ppm. The levels of mercury detected by the lab in those 19 products ranged from 1.5ppm to 8,500 ppm.

“Our testing indicates, once again, that Amazon.com continues to allow the toxic trade of SLPs laced with mercury,” said Michael Bender, Mercury Policy Project director and Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) co-coordinator. “If illegal marketing can’t be stopped, then online platforms should discontinue sales of all SLPs since toxic SLPs affect this entire category.”

Regular use of mercury-added SLPs can lead to rashes, skin discoloration and blotching, while long-term exposure may damage the eyes, lungs, kidneys, digestive, immune and nervous systems.

“Despite well-known health risks, unscrupulous cosmetics manufacturers often add mercury compounds to SLPs,” said Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, European Environmental Bureau and ZMWG co-coordinator. “Distributors, retailers and online platforms, benefit from this toxic trade.”

Online platforms often claim they are exempt from liability and/or claim they have filters in place to prevent illegal sales of SLP. However, our reports prove otherwise.

“It is appalling to see zero accountability from Amazon.com, which continues to profit from the well-known and avoidable sale of hazardous skin-whitening creams,” said Avipsa Mahapatra, Environmental Investigation Agency. “It is inexcusable that an internet marketplace giant instead of doing its due diligence, is shifting the burden to people of colour.”

More than 75% of the suspect SLPs purchased from Amazon.com were already on hazard or detention lists issued by various governments, including the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the states of California and Minnesota, California counties and New York City. The report recommends several remedies and underlines that at minimum, any policies, agreements or settlements with Amazon and other E-Commerce platforms should not be weaker than what was agreed to elsewhere, such as in Europe.

The full report can be accessed here and the executive summary here.


Editor’s Notes:

[1]  Although mercury SLPs have been banned in the U.S. since 1973, they continue to be sold illegally. Since the start of the pandemic, online sales have grown significantly.

[2]  Violations of consumer, health and safety laws not only threaten public health, but create an uneven playing field since ‘brick and mortar’ stores must comply with domestic laws that may be evaded online by E-commerce platforms like Amazon.

[3]  Mercury lightens the skin by suppressing the production of melanin and can also remove age spots, freckles, blemishes and wrinkles. Adolescents also use SLPs, as mercury acts as an anti-bacterial for the treatment of acne.

[4]  For more information, see the World Health Organization fact sheet: apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/330015/WHO-CED-PHE-EPE-19.13-eng.pdf

[5]  The Minamata Convention on Mercury: www.mercuryconvention.org

[6]  The Zero Mercury Working Group Skin Lightening Campaign: www.zeromercury.org/mercury-added-skin-lightening-creams-campaign

[7]  Report: ‘Prime’ Time to Stop Online Sales of Illegal High-Mercury Skin-Lightening Products: eeb.org/library/prime-time-to-stop-online-sales-of-illegal-high-mercury-skin-lightening-products

[8]  Executive Summary: ‘Prime’ Time to Stop Online Sales of Illegal High-Mercury Skin-Lightening Products: eeb.org/library/executive-summary-online-sales-of-illegal-high-mercury-skin-lightening-products


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For more information:

- Elena Lymberidi-Settimo: elena.lymberidi@eeb.org (+32 496 53 28 18)

- Michael Bender: mercurypolicy@aol.com (+1-802-223-9000)

- Avipsa Mahapatra: amahapatra@eia-global.org (+1 3479310129)

‘Prime’ time to stop online sales of illegal mercury skin-lightening products
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