ATLANTA — Skin-whitening creams are endorsed by celebrities and are a controversial beauty product.
A Channel 2 Action News investigation found some of these products are banned, highly toxic and being sold in Metro Atlanta.
Investigative reporter Nicole Carr was able to buy the products online and in a store in Clarkston. "All of them are chemical. I don't buy the chemical, only it's natural," one store owner told Carr. The chemical is mercury, and that's what makes these skin-whitening creams banned.
“Have you carried them before?” Carr asked. The clerk pointed next door. “Next door, OK,” said Carr.
When Carr went next door, she found the skin-whitening creams for sale.
“Do you have any of the skin-whitening creams?” Carr asked the second store owner.
“Of course,” the owner answered.
“Oh yeah, yeah, this one. This is it,” said Carr.
“Are these two pretty popular?” Carr asked.
“This is very popular,” the owner responded.
Skin-whitening creams are popular, dangerous and banned internationally. The products Channel 2 found are testing up to 20,000 mercury parts per million, according to recent findings by the Mercury Policy Product.
That’s 20 times the legal limit set by the Federal Drug Administration in 1973. People shouldn’t be able to buy them anywhere in the United States.
More than 50 public health and environmental groups called on eBay and Amazon to stop marketing and selling the banned skin care products late last year.
In January, it took Carr less than 10 minutes to find the products on Amazon and have them shipped to Atlanta. They arrived less than two weeks later from places like Pakistan.
“We’re dealing with a huge public health issue that will impact generations to come knowing how mercury is very toxic,” said public health educator Amira Adawe.
“There is an association with beauty and light skin,” said Adawe. Carr traveled to Minneapolis and met Adawe at the Karamel Mall where Adawe frequently warns and fines store owners for selling the same product Carr found in Clarkston.
“I mostly talk about the neurological impact so now we know that exposure from mercury causes neurological impact and kidney impacts,” said Adawe.
She and her mentee, Salma Ali, are both Somali-Americans. They explained the cultural significance of the creams which are popular in the Asian, Indian and African communities.
“Did you ever mess with these creams?” Carr asked Ali.
“You know honestly my aunt like offered to get me some creams from China. She was like, 'You know, Salma, your skin is not ugly, it’s just dirty,'” said Ali.
“Dirty?” Carr asked.
“Yeah, that’s the word she used,” Ali replied.
She had that conversation with her aunt when she was 15-years-old.
There is also an expectation for girls like her getting married.
“It is a wedding ritual to like use skin bleaching products from head to toe. They scrub you down and like you’re losing all these skin cells and you end up having like green veins showing on your skin. You don’t look natural. You don’t look like yourself,” said Ali.
"Just because something promises to lighten your skin doesn't mean it's safe necessarily," said Dr. Rutledge Forney a dermatologist with offices across Metro Atlanta. She told Channel 2 how the creams are linked to scarring, rough skin, tingling around the mouth and kidney damage -- all tied to mercury poisoning.
“The real problem is the absorption through the skin and then affecting the internal organs,” said Forney.
More research is going into natural lighteners, but curbing use may depend on self-love.
“Yes, the demand is high but, like, working against that by preventing women from wanting to use these products in the first place is what I feel like would essentially get rid of this problem,” said Ali.
Consumers don’t always see mercury spelled out on the label. Forney said other ingredients to look out for are mercuric amidochloride, mercury oxide, mercury salts, calomel, cinnabaris, hydrargyri oxydum rubrum and quicksilver.
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