Woman Gets Mercury Poisoning From Using Skin-Lightening Cream

Woman Gets Mercury Poisoning From Using Skin-Lightening Cream

In a first for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a lady from Sacramento, California was recently diagnosed with poisoning from employing a skin-lightening cream—and now, the health agency is warning others to be wary of using similar products. 

In a recent installment of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a team of researchers from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) detail the case of a 47-year-old Mexican-American woman who sought medical treatment in July 2019 for smooth muscle movements and weakness in her upper extremities. 

Over the course of fortnight of outpatient follow-up, the woman's condition progressed—eventually resulting in hospitalization thanks to blurry vision, speech difficulties, and unsteady gait. Even while hospitalized, the woman's condition continued to worsen, and she or he developed an agitated delirium, per the CDC's report. 

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Two weeks after being hospitalized, the woman's blood and urine tests detected "abnormally high values of mercury"—2,620 μg/L, to be exact. (According to the CDC, any blood mercury levels over 10 µg/L are cause for concern). 

The cause? consistent with an investigation by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), the woman's skin-lightening cream, which she had bought from Mexico and had been using twice each day for the past seven years, contained 12,000 ppm of mercury—specifically a kind of organic mercury called methylmercury. 

It’s not uncommon for harmful skin-lightening creams to contain inorganic mercury, the study’s lead author Paul Blanc, MD, MSPH, of the UCSF and California Poison system said during a handout. But organic mercury is much more toxic, and may cause “profound damage” to a person’s central systema nervosum which will even worsen after use of the merchandise ceases. 

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After her elevated mercury levels were found, the patient was placed on chelation therapy for heavy metal poisoning (in which a chelator drug binds to the metal within the bloodstream and is excreted within the urine), but didn’t improve the patient’s condition—although it did correspond with a drop by blood mercury—she was transferred to UCSF for further investigation. Even months after stopping using the cream, as of the CDC's report, she still isn’t ready to speak or look after herself, and is being fed through a tube. 

Her case could also be rare but it’s certainly a warning to anyone who uses skin-lightening creams on a daily basis, per the CDC. 

Consumers can take several steps to guard themselves, study co-author Craig Smollin, MD, of UCSF's emergency department and medical director of the California Poison Control System's San Francisco Division, said within the handout. He advised buying all skin creams from well-known stores, avoiding those with hand-made labels or without labels, and checking for a protective foil seal under the lid. Ingredients should be listed, and directions and warnings should be in English.