Wrinkles, laughter lines, spotted skin, and saggy ‘bits’ – let’s face it, we all want to get rid of them one way or another. Of course, the simplest and safest way to do so nowadays is to choose from the vast variety of beauty lines currently available worldwide, right?
Well, with the most recent FDA warning regarding the discovery of mercury in anti-aging products, you might want to let your ‘crow’s feet’ right where they are.
It is no secret that, throughout history, men and women have done almost everything in their power in the quest towards stopping time and maintaining their beauty – no matter how dangerous it proved out to be in the end.
From the lead powders used by ancient Greeks to make their complexion paler to the arsenic-ridden potions of 18th century Europe, mankind has had its fair share of toxic – and sometimes even deadly – cosmetics so far.
Luckily enough, contemporary times have taken the ‘danger’ from these aesthetic pursuits and replaced them with friendlier and more organic substances in various creams, gels, and lotions – or so it would seem.
The truth is that the vast majority of beauty enhancers and anti-aging products mask their more unethical components under complicated names or aliases to try and get below the health radar. After all, when was the last time you actually read the label of a beauty product and understood anything from it?
In theory, all cosmetic items should go through careful inspection before hitting the general market; in practice, the increase in beauty-oriented manufacturers from all around the world has made the accurate management of these products almost impossible.
The result is that dangerous ingredients such as mercury are included in seemingly harmless makeup and beauty items, with serious health problems emerging in the aftermath for their buyers.
Why use mercury in cosmetics, to begin with?
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Traditionally, mercury or quicksilver represents a chemical element usually employed in thermometers, fluorescent lamps, and various electronics owing to it being a good electricity conductor.
More often, mercury can be found in different amalgams with metals like copper, aluminum, and zinc that are used in various industrial and chemical processes.
Mercury has also been used in the past for medicinal purposes as a topical antiseptic (under the name ‘merbromi’n) and in dental fillings, although it has been replaced as of late with other substances because of raising health concerns.
In fact, many countries have taken to officially ban the use of mercury in human-focused products in light of its high toxicity rate and generally negative impact on health and wellbeing. So why is it still around in cosmetics?
One major factor contributing to the popularity of mercury-based items is that of the metal’s long history of utilization all across the globe as an antiseptic, laxative, disinfectant, diuretic, and everything in between.
For instance, mercury as cinnabar was a widespread choice in creating bright red dyes such as vermillion. Not only did this specific color pigment become a sought after choice in lacquerware (China) and burial decorations (Mexico), but also as a blush in numerous cosmetic potions.
Some findings equally attribute mercury with uses in alternative medicine for healing fractures faster and expanding a person’s lifespan, which – as we now know – could not be farther from the truth.
Despite knowing its toxic effect on the human body, some makeup and beauty companies still choose to include mercury into their anti-aging and skin lightening products as either ammoniated mercury (in soaps and creams) or ethyl mercury (in mascaras, makeup removers, etc.).
Why? Well, on the one hand, this substance acts as a strong preservative for the other cosmetic ingredients by maintaining their formula stable and extending the expiration date on said products.
On the other hand, mercury has been shown to inhibit melanin production and hence potentially lead to lighter, clearer skin.
How does mercury affect your body?
If our ancestors receive the benefit of the doubt when using mercury for beautifying processes, modern technology has fortunately allowed us to be more selective regarding cosmetics and how they affect our well-being over time.
However, our obsession with certain kinds of beauty standards often prevails over health standards most of the times, with mercury in anti-aging cosmetics being one of the prime examples in this sense.
Symptoms related to quicksilver intoxication are as varied as they are threatening to an individual’s long-term health.
The most obvious signs of mercury poisoning are the lack of general coordination and impaired sensory reactions, as well as localized or general pain, itching, swelling, and skin discoloration. Some individuals have claimed to even experience insomnia, tremors or numbness.
Kidney damage is another important side effect of this sort of intoxication, while anxiety, depression and psychotic episodes can develop after years or even months of applying such products.
When used in creams and lotions, mercury has a tendency to be quickly absorbed and accumulated at the level of the skin. Prolonged usage of these products then generates anything from local reactions such as skin breakouts and allergies to the most serious issue of neurotoxic problems.
Highly vulnerable categories to direct or indirect mercury exposure are young infants, nursing children, and pregnant mothers, with an extended utilization of this banned ingredient being equally damaging to other age groups as well.
The only instance where this ingredient is allowed to be included is in the case of eye makeup like mascara (as thiomersal), but only if no other alternative was readily available as a preservative and only in a proportion of 65 parts per million (0.0065%).
Any other makeup product cannot contain more than 1 part per million (0.0001%) of mercury as a natural occurrence from thermal water, air, soil etc. in order for it to be fit in terms of commercial distribution. All values above this level are considered to be dangerous for human employment.
Mercury in anti-aging products
Having seen the damaging effects of this substance on wellness, the question remains: why do companies still use it? The sad answer is that people still buy it, regardless of whether or not they are aware of its negative impact.
The inclusion of mercury in anti-aging and skin lightening cosmetics is first and foremost linked to the Westernized idea of beauty, namely that of youthful and light complexion at every age.
Signs of growing older – sun spots, blemishes, wrinkling, freckles, etc. – are definitely out of the question when trying to maintain this aesthetic ideal.
Of course, this prototype of ‘good looks’ is inherently detrimental for anyone who is not of Caucasian descent and who does not possess very a ‘forgiving’ genetic heritage.
It then comes as no surprise that the target audience for mercury-infused products comes from places like India, China, the Philippines and the Latin community.
In Africa alone, women use lightening products in a proportion of up to 50-70% on a daily basis, which accounts for the common occurrence of the nephritic syndrome among this particular gender.
In the United States, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has banned mercury compounds from cosmetics ever since 1974 (with a few and heavily regulated exceptions).
Similar restrictive jurisdictions can be found within the European Union and a number of African nations, for instance. Still, the pressure to look a certain way has ‘pushed’ cosmetics manufacturers into creating mercury-based makeup and toiletry items despite the judicial outcomes involved.
The fact that you can buy basically anything off the internet these days does not help either because it makes it all that more simple to both manufacture and distribute cosmetics containing higher amounts of mercury than legally permitted.
In other words, it implies that you can live in a country where mercury-based cosmetics are banned and still order such items online with ease. Add to this the growing demand for these particular items and you get a serious health hazard on your hands – and hidden in plain sight, as it were.
To make matters worse, discarding mercury-based products improperly or using them in connection with water sources (for example, soaps and shower gels) means that higher readings of this substance get slowly infiltrated into the environment.
Here, they can contaminate running water sources, soil or even evaporate into circulating air currents and cause serious health problems (especially for infants and children, who are more sensitive and can develop diseases or malformations).
In August 2016, the FDA issued a public notice warning against non-prescription drugs aimed at skin rejuvenation and even acne treatment (aimed at teenagers) in light of their high mercury content, therefore urging the public to refrain from buying them under any circumstances whatsoever.
In all likelihood, this announcement and others similar to it will do little to improve upon the actual requests for anti-aging serums and creams in a time when your appearance more or less dictates your place in society.
How to avoid mercury poisoning from cosmetics?
Let’s face it: for the moment, beauty products containing mercury are here to stay. The issue is that we might be using them even without knowing, something that subsequently warrants extra care and attention when buying something designed for skin care and maintenance.
To avoid unwanted health problems caused by this ‘sneaky’ ingredient, keep in mind the following tips on how to get the perfect skin care experience:
- Always read the labels – even if they make little to no sense to you, it is crucial that you closely examine the ingredient list of every anti-aging or lightening product before applying it to your skin. Aside from ‘mercury’ and ‘quicksilver’, this chemical also goes by the name of ‘Hg’, ‘ammoniated mercury’, ‘mercurous chloride’, ‘iodide’, ‘mercuric iodide’, ‘calomel’, ‘mercuric’, ‘mercurio’, ‘amide chloride of mercury’, ‘cinnabaris’ (or ‘mercury sulfide’), and ‘hydrargyri oxydum rubrum’ (or ‘mercury oxide’).
- Pay extra for better quality – although not a guarantee in itself, paying a couple of extra bucks for a brand cosmetic instead of a cheaper, knock-off version of it might pay off in the long run. Major makeup companies are generally much better regulated by official agencies like the FDA in terms of the ingredients they use for their items than unofficial manufacturers.
- Keep a close eye on your creams – a quality cream or soap does not only rely only on its brand name but also in its presentation format and the behavior of its composition in time. A mercury-filled product will present or gradually develop a creamy or grayish pigmentation, as well as have this substance presented under one of the names mentioned before. As a rule, never purchase or use a cosmetic item which does not have its label in English (or any other language that you understand correctly), has a broken seal or is commercialized in an untrustworthy manner.
- Check with your doctor – nothing beats the opinion of a professional, so be sure to check with a dermatologist before starting an anti-aging treatment. They should already be familiar with all the brands and variations of these products and thus recommend the best – and safest – options for your own personal needs.
- Go natural instead – obviously, the best way to avoid mercury intoxication from anti-aging cosmetics is to avoid them altogether and replace this option with a more organic range of alternatives. Antioxidants are renowned for their rejuvenating properties, so choose a face mask based on citrus, yogurt, honey or aloe vera gel to maintain your complexion both youthful and healthy.
As you can probably deduce by now, the presence of mercury in anti-aging products is an, unfortunately, sad reality of our contemporary times, especially since there are so many other safer choices for cosmetic ingredients available out there.
While keeping a close eye on all cosmetic manufacturers around the globe and ensuring they create mercury-free items is practically an impossible feat, what we can do is collectively reassess our definitions of ‘beauty’ and ‘aging’.
By being more inclusive of diversity in skin color and appearance, we can slowly (but surely) reduce the demand for these harmful and environmentally damaging products.
Until this is accomplished, remember to choose your cosmetics carefully and to love who you see in the mirror – imperfections and all!