The frantic efforts to wake up to a glowing skin through a wide application of coveted whitening creams are rather damning than any good the beauty products have brought in.
An array of skin lightening products imported from different Asian countries has been found to have a high concentration of mercury posing a grave concern to human health.
However, the market is saturated with such products containing dirty ingredients. Environment and Social Development Organization (ESDO) in collaboration with Zero Mercury Working Group, a worldwide network, collected 14 different brands of creams through online platforms. Samples were tested in US Biodiversity Research Institute Laboratory and Ban Toxic Laboratory in Philippines.
Among the samples tested, a high amount of mercury has been detected in nine branded creams. Of them, the highest level of mercury-containing product is Collagen plus Vit E (Night Cream) with 26,000-PPM mercury level. The product is manufactured in Thailand.
The least mercury-contained product is Kim Whitening Pearl & Snow Lotus Cream with 245 PPM also produced by Thailand. Similarly, 15,000 PPM mercury was found in JiaoBi Whitening Set (Night Cream), 12,667 PPM in Goree Beauty Cream, 12,000 PPM in Noor Herbal Beauty Cream, 10,716 PPM in Kim Whitening Ginseng and Pearl Cream, 10,000 PPM in Huayenong-Bird’s Nest Cosmetology, 8,500 PPM in Egg White & Cherry Whitening Cream and 7,400 PPMin Golden Pearl Whitening Beauty Cream.
Of the nine mercury-contained products, Pakistan and Thailand each manufactured three, Taiwan two and Hang Kong one. Human can be exposed to mercury directly from air, and exposure may happen through food chain as fish like tuna, which contains high levels of mercury. The Zero Mercury Working Group, a worldwide network, declared 80 creams, including the nine, dirty. The Bangladesh Standard and Testing Institute (BSTI) banned the three high mercury-contained beauty products made in Pakistan and Thailand.
Founded in 2005 by the European Environmental Bureau and the Mercury Policy Project, the Zero Mercury Working Group is an international coalition of more than 110 organisations belonging to government and non-government sectors from over 55 countries. “The National Board of Revenue (NBR) must ensure that no mercury-containing creams enter the countrythrough air, rail and river ports as beauty creams exceeding mercury level of 1 PPM is illegal in Bangladesh,” ESDO Secretary General Shahriar Hossain told The Business Post. “Law enforcement officials engaged with cybercrime control can take action as online platforms sell these products.”
These beauty products are available in online marketplaces such as Ajkerdeal.com, Apsara.com, Daraz.com.bd, Clickbd.com, Kablewala.com and Vinnobd.com. Facebook, YouTube and other social media are also involved in trading.
“They use different names and pictures of certain products on the site. We have teams to monitor this kind of activity regularly. When we notice such fraudulent activity, we remove those products from our site,” she added.
The ESDO conducted studies in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2021, and every year, it found a high level of mercury presence in a number of brand creams available in the market. In 2017, 17 samples were tested. Of them, mercury was found in five samples. In 2018, a high level of the harmful ingredient was found in 10 cream samples out of 20 tested. In 2019, all 16 creams examined contained mercury.
The creams are manufactured by different Asian countries including China, Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Japan and Bangladesh. According to the BSTI officials, they operate three mobile courts per day, and testing cosmetics is their preference during the drive.
On top of that, the BSTI surveillance team operates drives on the basis of information of illegal cosmetics. “If any beauty or whitening cream exceeds the mercury level more than 1 PPM, it is a matter of concern. If any such cream is found in the market, we will take action,” said Reazul Haque, deputy director (Certification marks wing) of BSTI.
Goree Whitening Cream, Chandni Whitening Cream, New Face Whitening Cream, Due Cream, Golden Pearl Cream, Faiza Cream, Noor Cream and White Pearl Plus Whitening Cream have been banned by the BSTI in 2020 due to high concentration of mercury in them. Despite the ban, creams with more than 1-PPM mercury are still flooded in local markets including the high mercury-contained three already banned by the BSTI.
According to NBR, BSTI and ESDO, a majority of harmful whitening creams penetrate Bangladesh market through individual passengers from Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Guangzhou and Kolkata, and are finally sold through online platforms and beauty parlors.
Beauty parlor owners, online page owners and retailers have close collaboration with the importers. “We bring it from abroad, and we use them in our parlor,” said Sharmin sultana, proprietor of Woman’s Doll, a beauty parlor in Dhaka. Sharmin, however, was reluctant to tell the names of the creams she uses in her parlor. The Business Post approached some retailers and other beauty parlor owners who market their beauty products through youtube and facebook, but none made any comment on the import procedure of their elusive beauty creams.
Health Effect of mercury in human body
Skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring, reduction in skin resistance to bacterial and fungal infection, anxiety, depression, psychosis and peripheral neuropathy, kidney damage are common consequences of mercury exposure. “It was quite good to smell and I failed to sense the danger lurked for me after using the cream on first and second day. On the third day I went to sleep like any other night pasting the cream. In the morning, I could not identify myself as rashes covered my whole face. I felt the pain like my face is burning. I rushed to the hospital, Shaharin Mallik, a mercury victim from Dhaka told The Business Post.
“For two and a half month I am living with burned skin and numerous red spot on my face. A cream with mercury took away many things from my life, she added. Dr Shahidullah Sikder, professor, Department of Dermatologist and Venereology of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, told The Business Post that whitening natural black skin through applying mercury is not a sound practice, nor is it good to try it surgically.
“Mercury can turn skin reddish, and create red spots in face which can create allergic reaction and ulcer. Skin can become totally faded from where returning back to its original colour is impossible in many cases,” warned the specialist.
“If someone’s skin is exposed to heavy metal like mercury, they need to go to doctor immediately.” The physician urged everyone to be careful about using any kind of whitening cream and suggested seeking an expert advice instead. Considering the health and environmental issue, a UN treaty — Minamata Convention on Mercury — was signed in 2013.
According to the treaty, all beauty care products containing the chemical element (mercury) have to be eliminated by 2022. Bangladesh is one of the signatories of the treaty.
“Generally, we do not allow products which are banned in import policy,” Khairul Kabir Mia, first secretary (Customs International Trade and Agreements) of the National Board of Revenue, told The Business Post.
“If BSTI conducts test and notifies us about specific products which are harmful to human health,we can stop import through ports,” he said.
Mercury releasing sources in Bangladesh
According to another ESDO study done in 2017-18, there was 14,772 kg mercury released in the environment annually in Bangladesh from final products. Of them, paint is the major source of mercury contamination, releasing 4,748kg mercury every year to the environment. Switches and relays release 1,404kg, sphygmomanometers 960kg, thermometers and cosmetics sectors 551kg each, bulbs 382kg, and button cell batteries produced 17.8kg.