If someone tries to sell you unmarked or homemade skin cream, just walk away. That's the message the California Department of Health is sending to consumers, after identifying at least 60 cases over the past four years of state residents getting mercury poisoning from such creams, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. In a public health advisory yesterday, it revealed that analysts had found creams from Mexico designed to lighten skin, fade blemishes, and treat acne contained as much as 200,000 times the legal limit of mercury.
The problem isn't a new one. The FDA and various state health departments have in recent years issued similar warnings, sounding the alarm about creams not just from Mexico, but from many countries. It warned customers to look for ingredients like "mercurous chloride," "calomel," "mercuric," "mercurio," or plain old "mercury." The products use mercury, Health Canal explains, because it suppresses the production of melanin in skin, lightening it. But it takes a long time for absorbed inorganic mercury to leave the body, so repeated use can raise the risk of harmful effects. Indeed, the Chronicle notes that a 16-year-old who used one such cream to treat his acne ended up in intensive care for nearly a month due to poisoning.