Certain creams used to lighten skin color or eliminate age spots, freckles and other skin discolorations have been found to contain dangerous levels of mercury which can lead to kidney damage.

While mercury is banned in the United States as an ingredient in skin-lightening creams, the products – with many different manufacturers and often sold in small stores and over the Internet -- are rarely tested. More than a dozen people in two states recently were found to have elevated levels of the toxic metal. The federal government has launched an investigation into the matter.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1990 prohibited the use of mercury in creams sold to lighten or bleach skin. According to news articles, many of the products are made in foreign countries including Pakistan, China, India, Lebanon and Mexico, and are sold in neighborhood beauty shops and ethnic stores.

Mercury is an inexpensive and effective skin whitener. Mercury blocks the production of melanin, which gives skin its pigmentation. But mercury is toxic and is rapidly absorbed through the skin. Mercury poisoning can create blurred vision or trouble walking in some people. In severe cases, in can shut down vital organs and cause death.

The wide array of skin creams are rarely tested form mercury content by the FDA. A recent investigation by The Chicago Tribune found mercury in six of 50 skin-lightening creams tested, with five having levels exceeding 6,000 parts per million, an amount considered extremely high and enough to cause kidney damage over time.

The creams were sold in a variety of Chicago stores, including a beauty supply store in the Uptown neighborhood, an herbal medicine ship in Chinatown and an African shop in the city. News reports said investigations by public health agencies in other states also found skin-lightening creams with high levels of mercury.

Sales of skin-lightening creams are booming in the United States and are estimated to reach $76 million annually over the next several years. They are often used to diminish age spots, even out skin tone and also by some people to lighten their overall complexions.

Kline & Specter, PC, a Philadelphia-based law firm with some 30 attorneys, several of whom are also highly regarded doctors, is one of the nation’s premier law firms in investigating and litigating cases in which people have been injured by defective or dangerous products. However, at this time, we are no longer accepting cases involving side effects from skin lighteners.