Some African-Americans and people of color around the world use skin lightening creams to bleach their skin and fade dark spots. Yet officials are finding that particular skin lightening creams from outside the U.S. can be very dangerous, because people have reported getting mercury poisoning from these products.

Last week, a California family was diagnosed with mercury poisoning after using an unlabeled face cream in a white plastic jar that was produced in Mexico and smuggled into the United States. The family received the cream from a relative in Virginia who has been purchasing the jars from an individual in Mexico.

California investigators determined that the woman used the cream twice a day, while her husband likely used the cream once a day for about three years to fade freckles and age spots. It is probably that the child ingested mercury through contact with the mother’s skin, although the possibility that the mother used the cream on the child has not been ruled out.The highest levels of mercury were found in the mother and child.

The California Department of Public Health said the 39-year-old Mexican-American woman had 100 times the safe level of mercury in her body. She reported having headaches, numbness, depression and forgetfulness. Her child’s mercury levels were 25 times higher than normal, but it had no serious symptoms.

Dr. Rupali Das, chief of the exposure assessment section at the California Department of Public Health, warned that those who use skin lightening creams from stores in ethnic communities or from outside the U.S., such as Mexico or Africa, should be very careful when using those products.

“Since the U.S. and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have strict limits on the amount of mercury in products, it is unlikely that mercury will be found at dangerous levels to people in U.S. [products],” she told theGrio. “Products are required to have a list of ingredients to view. The ones that don’t, we don’t know if they are safe are not. Therefore, people should not buy products that don’t have a label or don’t list the ingredients on the label.”

According to health officials, mercury blocks melanin production, which gives skin and hair its pigmentation. Mercury can get into the body through ingestion, inhalation, and absorption through the skin. It can stay in the human body for up to two months. However, if repeatedly placed onto the skin, it can take longer for mercury to be excreted.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that in the United States, many creams on the market often have mercury levels of 20,000 to 56,000 parts per million. Yet, the FDA only allows trace levels of mercury to be present in creams, at less than one part per million.

Dr. Sonia Badreshia-Bansal of the University of California, San Francisco told theGrio that although the FDA bans the use of mercury to minimal concentrations for all skin care products manufactured within the United States, it is nearly impossible to control all of the illegally imported products that come into the country every year.

“Mercury can cause many systemic problems, and is known to cause neurological and kidney damage and may also lead to psychiatric disorders,” Badreshia-Bansal said. “Often permanent nerve and brain damage can occur with long-term exposure.”

Dr. Das said mercury can be especially damaging to children. Das told the Associated Press regarding this issue, “We’re concerned about the harmful effects that mercury can have on children. It can delay their development and they might not catch up — ever.”

Interestingly, this is not the first time that people have suffered from mercury poisoning after using skin lightening creams. In January, California health officials worked alongside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to release a report that revealed numerous incidents of mercury poisoning in California and Virginia in 2010. The report also indicated that the people who suffered from mercury poisoning had used skin-lightening creams that were produced outside the United States and smuggled in.

Additionally, Minnesota also had issues with products with dangerous mercury levels. To keep residents safe, the Minnesota Department of Health warned people that they should not use skin lightening products that were being sold in African, Asian, Latino and Middle Eastern communities in the Twin Cities.

There was also attention placed on Chicago when the Environmental Protection Agency warned residents about the presence of the heavy metal in creams sold in the area.

Dermatologist Adam Friedman of Montefiore Medical Center said that many throughout the years have unknowingly used skin lightening creams that contain dangerous levels of mercury.

“This is an epidemic that has been going on since the earliest 20th century,” he said.”There have continuously been products being sold with high toxins, like mercury, and somehow they are getting into the United States and being sold over the counter. Mercury poisoning can be reversible if you get it out of your system. However, if it is in there long enough, it can be a long-building illness.”

As a dermatologist who specializes in treating skin concerns for patients of color, Dr. Andrew F. Alexis of the Skin Color Center at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital said he often sees patients (especially those of West African or Caribbean Ancestry) with complications from using bleaching creams. Many of these creams were bought in beauty supply stores that cater to their communities.

He emphasized that the public should be aware that there are many illegally distributed mercury-containing products often sold in beauty supply shops and on the Internet.

“People should always read the label and be aware of what they are purchasing,” he said. “The label may say ‘mercurio,’ ‘calomel,’ or ‘mercuric.’ These are products that should be avoided. Also, if a product does not list its ingredients, then I would advise not purchasing it.”

Yet Alexis said he understands the impact that dark spots and other skin issues can cause on the life impact of a person, which may then cause them to use products that that they do not thoroughly research.

“Pigmentation disorders, such as melasma, and post-inflammatory hypertension are among the most common conditions that I treat on a daily basis,” he told theGrio. “These conditions are frequently associated with a considerable quality of life impact, such as low self-esteem, and can inhibit aspects of social and professional life.

“However, one has to distinguish between the uses of skin lightening creams for therapeutic reasons as opposed to using non-FDA-approved products for bleaching skin or lightening one’s complexion,” Alexis continued. “These are two completely different issues.”

Dr. Badreshia-Bansal also believes the choice to lighten one’s skin is connected to low self-esteem.

“Skin lightening products are used extensively in African and Asian countries to ‘whiten’ the entire complexion,” she said. “This desire to lighten the skin is prevalent in these countries where lighter skin is considered to be more attractive than darker skin tones. Yet consequently, many dangerous skin lightening products are imported from these countries where legal regulations are not thoroughly enforced.”

For those who choose to use skin lightening products,Dr. Patricia Farris of Old Metairie Dermatology, who has a large dermatology practice that includes many patients of color, said that people should always research products before they use them and that people with darker skin should always use sunscreen to prevent deeper scar pigmentation.

With greater awareness and better skin care regimens, experts hope people will choose to protect themselves from the dangers of mercury contained in dangerous imported products.