Bangladesh is a lucrative market for four out of the top five skin lightening products that contain hazardous amounts of mercury, according to a recent global study
The most popular skincare products in Bangladesh are perhaps the ones that guarantee to make one “fair” in just a few weeks. To a large extent, these products do manage to brighten your skin by several shades.
But how do they do it? And what are their side effects?
The key ingredient in all the skin lightening products that make the skin “fair” is found to be mercury, a dangerous element that – depending on the extent of exposure – can cause an array of serious health problems that can range from skin disease and headache to infertility and cancer, according to scientists.
An international study conducted in 2017 and 2018 found that most of the skin lightening products that are readily available in Bangladeshi markets contain dangerous levels of mercury – far beyond the recommended level of 1ppm (parts per million), as per the Minamata Convention on Mercury.
The study was conducted by Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG), an international network of NGOs working on public health and environment issues in more than 50 countries.
The report of the study, titled “Mercury-Added Skin-Lightening Creams: Available, Inexpensive and Toxic,” was published in November.
The findings of the report put Bangladesh at the top of the list of 22 countries where skin lightening products, containing dangerous levels of mercury, are popular and easily available.
In fact, in 2018, Bangladesh was found to be market to four of the top five skin lightening creams with the highest levels of mercury.
Bangladesh is also a party to the Minamata Convention, an international treaty signed by 128 countries in Japan in 2013, agreeing to completely phase out the use of mercury in all skincare products.
During the study, with the help of its partner NGOs, ZMWG collected a total of 338 samples of skin lightening products from 22 countries.
The samples collected in 2017 were tested in the US, while 2018 samples were tested in Greece.
Among the samples, 34 creams were found to have mercury content ranging between 93ppm and 16,353ppm.
According to the study, almost 50% creams available in Bangladesh were found to contain more than 1ppm of mercury.
Around 31% of the samples collected from Indonesia were found to exceed the Minamata Convention limit, 33% from the Dominican Republic, 7% from Mauritius, 19% from the Philippines, 20% from Trinidad and Tobago, and 63% in Thailand – the highest.
In 2017, three out of the five samples with the highest mercury levels were found to have been collected from Bangladesh, while in 2018, the number was four. In both years, the samples with the highest mercury contents – collected from Bangladesh – were found to have been produced in Pakistan.
One of the four samples collected in 2017 was found to be locally produced – Lata Herbal Skin Bright Cream, with the mercury content of 8,500ppm.
However, when contacted, Aiub Ali Fahim, chairman of Lata Herbal (BD) Ltd, refuted the findings and claimed their products were mercury-free.
“We don’t mix mercury in our products. If it was detected in our cream, it may have come from other chemicals that we use,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.
He further said there was “no law in the country that prohibits mercury in our country.”
Use of mercury may not be prohibited in Bangladesh, but it certainly is restricted.
Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI) has set the limit of mercury content in a skincare product at 1pm, in accordance with the Minamata Convention.
What the experts say
Dr Shahriar Hossain, secretary general of Environment and Social Development Organization (Esdo), a partner organization of ZMWG in Bangladesh, said mercury was a well-known neurotoxin that could pose serious health risks.
“Skin lightening creams with high content of mercury can cause rashes, skin discolouration and blotching. Long-term exposure can have serious health consequences, including damage to the skin, eyes, lungs, kidneys, digestive, immune and nervous systems. Sometimes it may cause cancer,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.
“The government should introduce proper legislation to strictly regulate the use of mercury in these products,” he added.
Prof Abul Hashem, chairman of BSTI’s Chemical Division, said: “The deep-rooted obsession with skin lightening products will not change overnight. The government, health practitioners and community leaders should initiate culturally appropriate campaigns about the potential risks of using skin-lightening products.”
Mercury-based skincare products are at the centre of a huge global business. Skin lightening creams and soaps are particularly popular in Asia, Middle East and Africa – annual sales in these regions amounted to a whopping $17.9 billion in 2017 - and is projected to jump to $31.2 billion by 2024, according to Global Industry Analysts.
In response to the report, Esdo along with 50 civil society platforms from more than 20 countries wrote to global e-commerce outlets such as Amazon and E-Bay November 15, urging them stop marketing illegal mercury-based skin lightening products. They also urged the e-commerce giants to sell only the products that comply with government regulations.