African nations have proposed an amendment to the Minamata Convention, which bans sale of mercury-added cosmetics, including skin-lightening products. Currently, the treaty requires that every party should not allow manufacture, import or export of mercury-added cosmetics with content above one part per million (PPM), including skin lightening soaps and creams.
However, use of the cosmetics, both at local markets and on the Internet, continues to thrive due to lack of national bans on sale. Skin lighteners are sold as creams, lotions and soaps. The Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) testing indicates that hundreds, if not thousands of them, are available in the global market. Those that use mercury as an active ingredient often contain from two to 10 per cent by weight.
Products tested across Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and North America have contained from less than one to 57,000 PPM mercury. Unfortunately, the most effective ingredients, which include mercury compounds and hydroquinone, may be cheapest, and that induces many manufacturers to use them in products despite their well-documented toxic hazards.
Violations of consumer, health and safety laws not only threaten public health, but also create an uneven playing field since ‘brick and mortar’ stores must comply with domestic laws that may be evaded online by e-commerce platforms.
Mercury lightens the skin by suppressing production of melanin and can also remove age spots, freckles, blemishes and wrinkles. Adolescents also use skin-lightening products (SLPs), as mercury acts as anti-bacterial for treatment of acne.
ZMWG has applauded the move, as African-focused studies reveal why mercury-laced cosmetics are such an acute health risk. A Nigerian study found that over 30 per cent of women, who used bleaching creams, experienced skin irritation.
The skin lightening industry is one of the fastest growing industries worldwide, and is estimated to worth $31.2 billion by 2024. A study conducted by Zero Mercury Group in 2017 and 2018 collected 338 samples of skin lightening creams from 22 countries in both formal and informal markets to identify a “snapshot” of frequency and concentration, where mercury is used as an active ingredient in skin lightening creams globally.
Thirty-four creams (10 per cent of the samples) were found to have high mercury levels above one PPM. These high mercury samples were found in seven of the 22 nations. Of these seven countries, four had requirements prohibiting more than one PPM mercury content. Overall, the mercury concentration in these particular products ranged from 93 to over 16,000 PPM.
At least 10 African nations have adopted regulations to check toxic skin lighters, comprising South Africa, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Nigeria, Cameroun and South Sudan. Since 2015, eight of them have taken steps to contain toxic cosmetics.
“Even in countries like Nigeria that have banned manufacture and trade, mercury-added cosmetics are still widely available,” Executive Director of Sustainable Research and Action for Environmental Development (SRADeV Nigeria), Leslie Adogame, said. He added: “Since most come from outside the country, more must be done globally to curtail sales and use.”
In February, National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) declared the use of bleaching creams as a national health emergency.
Director of Public Affairs, Dr. Abubakar Jimoh, said the agency required the media to combat the bleaching epidemic among Nigerians, stating: “NAFDAC cannot do it alone.”