I don’t often say this, but I am indebted to inveterate scaremonger Stacey Malkin for drawing my attention to a dangerous ingredient in some cosmetic products. Stacey Malkin is the author of a very misleading book warning people about imaginary risks she claims you run using everyday personal care products. She also has a blog where she invariably gets things wrong. But tucked away in the comments section of one post I found a reference to some tests done on products in the Phillipines indicating that high levels of mercury have been found in skin care products.
Most stories about the supposed dangers of cosmetics are just that, stories. Journalists love to scare you – it shifts newspapers and books. But there were some details in this particular one that sounded quite plausible. But first a bit of background.
Skin lightening products are one of the biggest categories of products worldwide, even if they aren’t particularly huge business here in the UK. But there was a time when even here they were popular. The first Queen Elizabeth used to coat her face with lead dissolved in vinegar to keep it as pale as possible. The reason was that the lower class folk doing the work in the fields couldn’t avoid getting a dose of sun and the tanned complexion that went along with it. So light skin was associated with high status for most of history even in cloudy northern latitudes. The handsome prince is after all generally on the look out for a fair maiden, not one just back form the tanning studio. This ancient prejudice is still prevalent, probably unconsciously, in many places in the world today.
This is a deep rooted notion, and is not something imposed by western cultural imperialism or anything like that. (I put that last sentence in for Guardian readers.) It is simply a fact that millions of people all around the world would love to look paler than they actually do. This is no more or less strange than the large number of people who seek out fake tanning products to make their skins darker.
But due to the particular way biology and chemistry work it just happens to turn out that lightening the skin is a very difficult thing to do safely and effectively, while fake tans can be formulated that work pretty well with no health risks at all. Queen Elizabeth lived to be 70 which wasn’t a bad age for the time. But her lead based make up probably didn’t prolong her life very much. Heavy metals like lead, antimony and mercury are effective skin lighteners because they are toxic. They work by inhibiting enzyme functions. Applying them directly to the skin inhibits the enzymes that form the melanin that gives the skin its colour. The body can cope with low levels but dosage is critical. If you are using enough to have a skin lightening effect you have probably used enough to have some other less desirable effects elsewhere in your body.
It is unlikely that Elizabeth was not aware of the dangers of the lead she was using. She was an intelligent and well educated woman and the dangers of lead had been documented by the Romans. I think she made a considered judgement and used her lead with care. She lived to what was by the standards of the time a pretty good age after all. It is unwise to underestimate the intelligence of women when it comes to knowing what to do with make up. Just how unwise can be seen from the career of one of Elizabeth’s near contemporaries, Giulia Toffana. Living in Italy, she amassed a considerable fortune by selling poisoned face paint to women who wanted to get rid of tiresome husbands. She claimed 600 successful killings at her trial. These women knew what they were doing.
The most effective toxic heavy metal for skin lightening is mercury, and a very convenient way of handling it is to put it into a bar of soap. Mercury containing soaps are still obtainable in some countries – I don’t think they are still actually legal anywhere but they may be. The use of soap prevents small children from accidentally eating it, and allows the dose applied to be controlled reasonably easily. The drawback is that mercury is very expensive. This makes it very tempting for manufacturers to cut back on the level of mercury or even leave it out all together. I was very impressed to hear that women in some countries in Africa had worked out a makeshift way of testing the mercury content in their skin lightening soaps using cigarette wrappers. (If anyone can work out how that is done themselves I will be awarding points. I doubt that Stacey Malkin would be able to.)
My inner libertarian half wants to say that if people know what they are doing and know the risks they are running, perhaps they should be left to get on with it. But mercury is a pretty toxic so it really isn’t something to be handled casually, and it will definitely get into water courses where it can damage the local environment. So the laws preventing the trade in mercury soap really are necessary and quite justified.
And so back to the story from the Philippines. I find it very easy to believe that there are businessmen importing cosmetic products with high levels of mercury from China. This is likely to be done quite consciously. Mercury is expensive and difficult to handle. I doubt very much it is getting in there by mistake. And the users might be well aware of the presence of it and be deliberately seeking it out because they want to get the skin lightening effect. They may even be testing the products to make sure they contain an illegal toxic material.
So what should be done about this situation? Well as I said, there needs to be laws against the inclusion of mercury in cosmetics. But clearly the laws aren’t working as well as we would like. One alternative to mercury is hydroquinone. This is pretty unpleasant too. It doesn’t have the systemic toxic effects that mercury does, but it can still be pretty damaging. If used continually for a long period of time it will interfere with the skin’s ability to cope with sunlight. It can even make exposure to the sun uncomfortable. If you know anyone whose skin has lost a lot of pigment over the years, and who has taken to wearing sunglasses, wide brimmed hats and covering his face with a mask there is a good chance he has been using a lot of hydroquinone.
Should hydroquinone be banned? On the face of it you might think so. But if that drives people to use illegal mercury maybe not. To be honest, I don’t know what should be done. Luckily, I don’t have to make such a decision. In Europe every product has to be assessed for safety, and nobody can sign off a straight skin lightening product containing hydroquinone as safe. To all intents and purposes hydroquinone based skin lightening products can’t be obtained legally in the EU without a pharmaceutical license. But I am glad I don’t have to decide what the best course of action is elsewhere where skin lighteners are very popular.
I sometimes envy single issue campaigners their black and white worldview. It would be great to live in a world where problems are all due to wicked people doing nasty things. All you would have to do would be find the scoundrels and lock them up. As it is, things are a lot more complicated. We obviously do need laws against mercury and other toxins in cosmetics. But legislation is only one aspect of making the world safer, and not the most important one. You need to think carefully about what the effect of those laws will be. If you stop people legally using something they want to use, what will their reaction be? And don’t assume they are stupid. They aren’t.