According to the FDA, mercury-containing skin products often falsely promise to remove a person's freckles or blemishes.

  • A woman's skin-lightening face cream put her in a coma because it was contaminated with mercury, according to a new report published today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • The woman used skin-lightening creams she bought from Mexico twice daily for seven years.
  • The case underscores how dangerous some topical skincare products can be because certain ingredients can enter the body through the skin, rather than just sit on top of it.
  • The US Food and Drug Administration has outlawed all consumer products that contain mercury, but these products are still being sold illegally online and in other countries.
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A woman's skin-lightening face cream put her in a coma because it was contaminated with mercury, according to a new report published today by the CDC.

The report details the case of a 47-year-old Mexican-American woman in Sacramento, California, who saw a doctor in July 2019 because she was in pain and felt weak. Two weeks later, her condition had only gotten worse and she'd also begun having blurry vision and trouble balancing to walk.

At that point, she was hospitalised, the study authors said, but it wasn't until she started to become delirious that they performed urine and blood tests and found "abnormally high" levels of methylmercury, a form of organic mercury found in fish and shellfish, in her blood.

After calling poison control, doctors gave the woman a feeding tube with medicine for treating her condition and interviewed her family, who told them the woman had a history of using skin-lightening creams she bought from Mexico. She had been applying the creams to her face twice daily for the past seven years, according to the report. The cream she'd most recently used was tested and found to contain mercury.

Now, despite ongoing treatment for the poisoning, the woman "remains unable to verbalise or care for herself, requiring ongoing tube feeding for nutritional support," the study authors wrote.

Study co-author Dr. Paul Blanc, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told Insider that while poisoning from inorganic mercury in skin products is fairly common, poisoning from the organic form of mercury, methylmercury, is far less common but much more toxic. In fact, this is the first-known case of methylmercury poisoning from a skin-lightening cream.

"We're concerned about any mercury contamination, but this study ups the ante," Blanc said, adding that people of color, especially women of color, are particularly vulnerable populations for this type of poisoning because of "the false belief that having lighter skin is advantageous."

Topical skin products can be absorbed into the body and lead to systemic poisoning

The FDA has outlawed drugs and cosmetics that contain mercury, but these products are still being sold illegally online and elsewhere.

The woman's case underscores how dangerous some topical skincare products can be because certain ingredients can enter the body through the skin, rather than just sit on top of it.

Nicotine is one of those substances, for example, which explains why nicotine patches placed on the skin are effective for people who are trying to wean or quit their smoking habits.

According to Blanc, mercury is another one of those substances that the skin absorbs. "The problem with organic mercury compounds [like methylmercury] is they go straight to the brain," Blanc said.

As a result, a person can lose control over their motor functions and be unable to do daily activities like walking, eating, and talking. According to Blanc, they may not even be aware of their surroundings depending on how severe the poisoning is.

Skincare products containing mercury are illegal

The FDA has outlawed drugs and cosmetics that contain mercury, but these products are still being sold illegally online and in other countries where it's less regulated.

According to the FDA, mercury-containing skin products often promise skin-lightening or anti-aging benefits, or claim to remove a person's freckles or blemishes.

Words like "mercurous chloride," "calomel," "mercuric," "mercurio," or "mercury" on an ingredient label signify there's mercury in it, so a person should stop using it immediately, the FDA said on its website. And if there's no ingredient label on the product, that's also a red flag to halt use.

Mercury poisoning symptoms include tingling in the hands, feet, or mouth, dizziness, memory problems, and irritability. If you experience any of these conditions, call your poison center at 1-800-222-1222.

Taking immediate action is important because the brain-damaging effects of mercury poisoning can be permanent and lead to further health problems in the future.

"This may not be the last case we see, unfortunately," Blanc said.

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