What is Mercury and what is it used for?

Mercury is a metallic element that is naturally occurring in the environment. Mercury can have several forms but is most often recognized as a shiny, silver-white, dense liquid. Metallic mercury finds many uses including in thermometers, electrical switches, dental amalgams and some industrial manufacturing. In addition to metallic (liquid) mercury, the element can exist in combination with other elements to form compounds. Mercury compounds are the most common form that exists naturally in the environment. As noted above, the use of such compounds in cosmetic products is strictly regulated by the FDA.

Where can Mercury be found?

Mercury is generally found at low levels throughout the environment in rocks, sediments, water, and soils; however scientists have also found some mineral occurrences and thermal springs that are naturally high in mercury. Most of the human exposures occur from levels of mercury in the environment. We are routinely exposed in the food we eat, and to a lesser degree, the air we breathe and the water we drink. Most exposures are due to unavoidable natural occurrence of mercury compounds in the soil. Metallic mercury is found in amalgams with silver that are used in dental fillings.

Should I be concerned about the presence of Mercury in cosmetics products?

There is no basis for concern by the consumer for the presence of mercury in cosmetic and personal care products purchased in the United States that comply with FDA regulations. The FDA limit of 1 part-per-million of mercury allowed in most cosmetics does not present a risk to health. The trace level of mercury that FDA allows for use some eye care preparations is too small to be of concern for health reasons but is sufficient to prevent bacterial contamination of the eye care product and serious eye infections in the users of the eye care product.

Has FDA prohibited the use of Mercury in cosmetics and personal care products?

FDA banned mercury in most cosmetics in 1974. The FDA has determined that mercury compounds may be used in cosmetic products only in trace amounts as a preservative in certain eye-area products when no equally safe and effective alternative is available for use in such products. According to FDA regulations, any cosmetic product that contains more than unavoidable traces of mercury is in violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and is subject to legal action. With the exception noted below, FDA has set a maximum allowable limit for mercury in cosmetic products generally of no more than 1 part per million (0.0001 percent) (21 CFR 700.13) Any amount at or above 1 ppm is subject to strict regulatory action. FDA did make an exception for cosmetics intended for use only in the area of the eye. This exception applies only for preservatives in eye-area products such as eyeliners and mascara. It does not apply to creams and lotions. FDA recognized that certain mercury-containing preservatives are exceptionally effective in preventing Pseudomonas bacterial contamination of cosmetics and, at the time, the availability of safe and effective alternative preservatives was very limited. Pseudomonas infection of the eye can cause serious injury, including blindness. The FDA regulations provide that the use of mercurial preservatives can be used up to a maximum level of 65 parts per million (0.0065 percent) of mercury but only in those cases where “there is no effective and safe nonmercurial substitute preservative available”. In fact, since these regulations were implemented in 1974, there have become available suitable alternative non-mercurial preservatives and the use of mercury has all but ceased. Link to FDA regulation for use of mercury compounds in cosmetics: Several decades ago, mercury-containing products were popular for lightening or bleaching the skin. The same regulation that banned most uses of mercury in cosmetics and personal care products, banned this use of mercury. Further, FDA classified all skin-bleaching ingredients as drugs and required that they be shown to be safe and effective according to the drug regulations. In fact, FDA has taken regulatory action against mercury-containing skin lightening products that sometimes illegally enter the United States from other countries. FDA press release about a mercury-containing skin cream: FDA has also set limits on the levels of mercury allowed in color additives and bottled water. In setting these limits, FDA takes into account the amount of exposure that results from the product and the route of exposure.

What about the ban on Mercury recently enacted by the state of Minnesota?

There have been recent reports in the news about the state of Minnesota passing a law banning mercury in cosmetics. This law, which broadly applies to a wide variety of mercury-containing products, such as thermometers and fluorescent lighting, specifically prohibits the sale or distribution of “a cosmetic, toiletry, or fragrance product containing mercury” as an intentionally added ingredient in the state of Minnesota. As noted above, in 1974, the FDA banned mercury from the vast majority of cosmetics and personal care products. Although Federal regulations do allow its conditional use in eye-area products only when alternative preservatives are not available, such alternatives are now used. Contrary to some news reports, FDA has already banned mercury from skin products and has taken regulatory action against skin lightening products that use mercury compounds as the active ingredient.

What are the hazards of Mercury and Mercury-containing compounds?

The toxicity of mercury and its compounds is extensively documented in scientific literature. Some mercury compounds can be absorbed through the skin on topical application and accumulate in the body. Depending on the form of mercury, exposure to sufficiently high concentrations can result in allergic reactions, skin irritation, or neurotoxicity. Chronic exposure and accumulation to mercury compounds can result in a variety of symptoms and adverse reactions including nervousness, irritability, tremors, weakness, fatigue, memory loss, changes in hearing, vision and taste, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, kidney damage, and, at high levels, death.

More Information:

FDA Regulation for the Use of Mercury in Cosmetic Products Summary of toxicity and other information pertaining to mercury (United States Centers for Disease Control) US FDA statement concerning ingredients prohibited or restricted in cosmetic products US EPA information on actions by EPA and others, including international actions; effects on people and the environment; and how to protect you and your family.