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IPEN

A Toxics-Free Future

Survey shows high mercury level in cosmetics exceeding national standards

The press release below, from IPEN Participating Organizations and other colleagues, relates to work on toxics in products that was carried out in China in 2012

BEIJING (November 24, 2015): Several Chinese non-governmental environmental organizations (NGO) jointly issued a report in Beijing on Tuesday, saying that some skin-lightening cosmetics on the Chinese market containing mercury greatly exceeding national standards.
 
The environmental groups sampled 100 skin-whitening cosmetics purchased on the market and found that 21 samples with mercury level exceeded the China standard of 1ppm. Those products include skin lightening creams and related beauty products. Of the 21 products exceeding the standards, the range of mercury concentrations was between 300 ppm to more than 42,000 ppm. The five products with highest mercury level range contained mercury concentrations between roughly 9000 ppm to more than 42000 ppm. Among them, three samples are from Taobao.com -- the country’s most popular online shopping platform, and two from Beijing Xidan Mingzhu Mall.
 
From May to September, 2015, Chinese NGOs obtained 100 skin lightening cosmetics samples from online outlets and stores in eight cities from eight provinces and municipalities across China. The cosmetics samples are obtained from cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Changsha, Hefei and Kunming, and from online outlets from JD.com and Taobao.com. Products in stores of Beijing, Hefei and Changsha have been found high level of mercury. Moreover, products on 10 Taobao.com online outlets are also found containing high level of mercury.

The Chinese NGOs include Nature University, Friends of Nature, Rock Environment and Energy Research Institute, IPE, Tianjin Binhai Environmental Consulting Center, Green Anhui, Shanghai Minhang District Environmental Club, Changsha Shuguang, Sichuan Green Environmental Service Center and Green Kunming.

In the survey, a portable X-ray fluorescence analyzer is used for mercury content testing in the cosmetics. The researchers also sent part of the sample to a third-party independent laboratory to verify the results.

In 2012, Chinese NGOs did a similar survey on whitening cosmetics and found that 23% of skin lightening cosmetics containing mercury level exceeding national standard, ranging from 18 ppm to 44,000 ppm. The similar results in 2015 indicate the situation has not significantly improved in the last three years. Indeed, the previous tested 10 Taobao.com products with high level of mercury are still selling online and all contain mercury exceeding national level, including the one with the highest mercury level of more than 42000 ppm.

"Products containing high levels of mercury are often the low-end products which you can find in boutiques, small shops, beauty shops, as well as online outlets," said Pan Qing’an, a researcher with the Nature University.

"Taobao.com and other providers selling shabby products have failed to fulfill their responsibilities to the consumers. Manufacturers and formulators should obey Chinese laws, immediately phase out mercury and other toxic chemicals, and shift to safer ingredients. Meanwhile, government agencies must significantly improve their efforts to oversee those shops and manufacturers, "said Pan. “Three years have passed, the situation remains grim.”

Environmental groups suggested that government departments should strengthen supervision and law enforcement policies on mercury containing cosmetics. Especially for the products sell online, as people can buy them from all over the country, leading to a high degree of mercury-containing products can circulate in the country.

China must also restrict the export of skin lightening products exceeding 1 ppm mercury by 2020, to promote global compliance with the Minamata Convention on Mercury. The Convention will prohibit the manufacture, import, or export of these cosmetics in most cases, thus enforcement will become a matter of concern for trade officials too, said Mao Da, director of Rock Environment & Energy Institute.

“The governments need to strengthen law enforcement so that people’s health can be better protected. Meanwhile, China can fulfill its international obligations,” Mao said.

The World Health Organization (WHO), among other health experts, have found that mercury containing cosmetics are seriously harmful to human health. The inorganic mercury contained in some skin-lightening products can cause kidney damage, skin rashes, skin discoloration, scarring, anxiety, depression, psychosis, peripheral neuropathy, and reduction of resistance to infections.

Mercury exposure from skin-lightening products may not be limited to just the user of the cosmetics.  Case studies in the USA document mercury exposure to children in the household, and to the developing fetus, resulting from maternal use of these products.