New York has become the third state to ban the distribution or sale of cosmetics and personal products that contain mercury. The law was signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul in late December — to little fanfare or media attention. The ban takes effect June 1, though its enforcement and the penalties for retailers who violate it are still unclear.
Mercury is a naturally occurring chemical that’s also a neurotoxin. It has been linked to cancer, developmental disorders and other health effects, but is legal in small amounts in some products as a preservative and germ killer.
New York’s new law calls for clearer, more consistent labeling of beauty product ingredients. Mercury has long been used in skin-lightening or whitening creams marketed toward women of color, as well as hair relaxers and treatments meant to remove blemishes, age spots and wrinkles.
But consumers will still need to do their own due diligence as state officials at the Department of Environmental Conservation determine enforcement mechanisms and how retailers will be held to this new standard.
“There’s a really strong link between racism and the use of cosmetics, particularly skin-lightening creams,” said Sonal Jessel, director of policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice.
The new state law has a tougher standard than the federal government. Right now, the beauty industry is not required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to list all its ingredients on their products. For example, one loophole allows ingredients to stay hidden if they’re considered “trade secrets.” Lax enforcement is also an issue given the scale of cosmetics and lotions sold at stores nationwide and online.
“There’s not the capacity to test every single product that finds its way to the U.S.,” said Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group.
Mercury, a heavy metal, can have a skin-lightening effect by suppressing the production of melanin, leading to a lighter skin tone, according to the World Health Organization. Using skin-lightening products containing mercury can cause skin rashes in the short term, but exposure over a lifetime could damage organs, Stoiber said.
“The health effects can range anything from skin rash, skin irritation, all the way to much more severe effects, such as damaging your kidneys, so it is definitely not something you want to be exposed to or put on your body,” Stoiber said.
These skin-lightening products are part of a global industry estimated to be worth $31 billion by 2024, according to the World Health Organization. A recent CNN investigative report stated that the U.S. makes up one-third of the market for skin-lightening products.
Even with New York’s ban, the products could still be around
Efforts to update safety standards in cosmetics have been ongoing since 2008, when Minnesota became the first state in the country to ban mercury as an ingredient in beauty products.
But products that contain mercury can still be purchased online, despite a global treaty agreement to cease production, according to a March 2022 report produced by the Zero Mercury Working Group.
The group started tracking mercury in skin-lightening products in 2017, but this is the first report it has published that focuses on the online sale of these items since international regulations on the neurotoxin were put into effect in 2020.
Researchers found that out of 271 skin-lightening products sold by online retailers like Amazon and eBay, 129 of them contained dangerously high levels of mercury. The report calls on retailers to actually enforce their restricted item policies.
Amazon’s policy states that the products the company sells “must comply with all laws and regulations” and that the “sale of illegal, unsafe, or other restricted products listed on these pages … is strictly prohibited.” And in 2020, Johnson & Johnson, Unilever and L’Oréal changed the way they sell and market skin-lightening products in Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries.
Before buying a product marketed as a skin lightener or anti-aging treatment, the FDA recommends reviewing ingredient labels for the words “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric,” or “mercurio” – all of which indicate the product contains mercury.
The FDA recommends reviewing ingredient labels for the phrases “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric,” or “mercurio.”
For nearly a century, the FDA has been left with little power to ensure the safety of thousands of personal care products ranging from mascara to shampoo. But cosmetics regulation, which hasn’t changed since 1938, finally got a much-needed makeover in December with the Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022. The law requires cosmetic manufacturers to provide the FDA with a list of products and product ingredients.
Right now, only 11 ingredients in cosmetics are regulated by the agency. By contrast, the European Union bans more than 1,300 chemicals from personal care products. However, the FDA does keep a list of skincare products that it found to contain mercury.
Cosmetics complaints in New York City and across the country go through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The city’s 311 service does not accept these reports, according to a spokesperson with the Office of Technology & Innovation, which handles citywide data.
Bobbi Wilding, executive director of Clean+Healthy, one of New York’s leading environmental health organizations, said nonprofits and state agencies such as the Department of Environmental Conservation may go out to stores and test products for mercury once the ban takes effect.
“Often organizations like ours will do some compliance testing where we’ll just buy some products and send them to the lab and flag it for regulators,” Wilding stated. “The attorney general’s office has been known to go and test [for toxic chemicals.] They were testing children’s products a decade ago.”
How mercury acquired into some cosmetics
Quite a few pores and skin lighteners are on the market in the aisles of beauty provide shops throughout Brooklyn and Queens; most of them are manufactured abroad. However customers don’t want to depart the consolation of their residence to purchase the products. A easy Google or Twitter search turns up products ranging in value from $6-$40.
Wilding stated regulators have recognized concerning the risks of mercury for hundreds of years. The expression “mad as a hatter” got here into the English lexicon as a result of hat makers have been unknowingly being poisoned by mercury salts used to make felt for hats, he stated.
“As a rule of thumb, I would definitely steer clear from skin-lightening creams,” Stoiber stated. Whereas the FDA banned the usage of mercury in most cosmetics at ranges increased than 1 ppm in 1973, that was for U.S.-made products and didn’t point out imports or on-line gross sales.
Advocates argue mercury has no place in beauty products and that racist beauty standards are driving the use of harmful skin-lightening creams.
New York City-based WE ACT for Environmental Justice collaborated with various universities on a survey to better understand the use of chemical hair straighteners and skin lighteners, which are frequently used by women of color.
The study, published Jan. 18 in the journal Environmental Justice, found the use of these skin-lightening creams stems from far more than just the desire to look whiter; it’s also used to advance social standing, careers and relationships.
We find that people generally feel that lighter skin is a more beautiful way to look, and that is due to our history of racism in the United States.
“We find that people generally feel that lighter skin is a more beautiful way to look, and that is due to our history of racism in the United States,” said Jessel from WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “Our legacy of even colonialism is a part of that conversation in terms of the global side of skin lightening use.”
Jessel said WE ACT hasn’t heard of anyone, including shopkeepers currently selling products containing mercury, who was upset about the ban in New York. Organizations like WE ACT and Clean+Healthy are trying to change harmful beauty standards and increase public education on the dangers of products that contain mercury.
New York’s ban amends the state’s Environmental Conservation law to include mercury alongside the existing 1,4-dioxanelimits in cosmetics and personal care products in the state.
The law also calls for the creation of more consistent labeling of product ingredients for these items. New York already banned the use of mercury in thermometers, fluorescent lights and other common products in 2004.