Editor’s Note: This story is part of ‘White lies’, a series by CNN’s As Equals investigating skin whitening practices worldwide to expose the underlying drivers of colorism, the industry that profits from it and the cost to individuals and communities. For information about how CNN As Equals is funded and more, check out our FAQs.
Skin whitening products containing high levels of mercury continue to be sold on the world’s biggest e-commerce platforms, including websites run by eBay, Amazon and Alibaba, a new report by the Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) finds.
The report, shared exclusively with CNN ahead of publishing, is the third by the ZMWG to reveal high levels of mercury in, and the global availability of, skin whitening soaps and creams. This is, however, the group’s first report to focus solely on the online sale of these products.
For its research, ZMWG purchased and tested 271 skin lightening products from more than 40 e-commerce sites in 17 countries across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Of these, 129 products in 16 countries were found to have high levels of mercury and were being sold on more than 30 different sites.
“When we started looking at these products online, there was such widespread use,” said Michael Bender, Executive Director of the Mercury Policy Project and a coordinator for ZMWG. “It was like an explosion compared to what we were seeing in the local markets,” he told CNN.
The use of mercury in cosmetics is restricted in most countries due to its toxic effects. In 2013, the Minamata convention on mercury set an international limit for cosmetics of 1mg/kg of mercury, or 1 part per million (ppm) which came into force in 2021, though this excludes eye area cosmetics. The manufacture, import and export of cosmetics with over 1 ppm mercury is also prohibited under the global treaty.
But 47% of the skin whitening products tested by the ZMWG contained more than the permitted level of mercury, with many containing over 10,000 ppm of mercury – and some over 50,000ppm, according to the report. CNN did not independently test the products named in the report.
The ZMWG, an international coalition of more than 110 public interest, environmental and health NGOs from over 55 countries, is calling for online e-commerce sites to be made liable for products sold on their platforms and asking that they fully comply with the health and safety laws of countries they are selling in.
It’s unfair that “physically-located companies have to adhere to national laws and internet companies seemingly don’t,” said Bender. “If it’s illegal domestically, it should be illegal online.”
Current legal regulatory frameworks in many countries worldwide fail to adequately protect consumers from hazardous, counterfeit and illegal products sold online, according to the report, which publishes Thursday.
“Many countries around the world, including in the EU, have regulation in place for mercury in skin creams but the creams are just penetrating the market,” said Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, Policy Manager for the Zero Mercury Campaign at the European Environmental Bureau and fellow coordinator for the ZMWG.
Lymberidi-Settimo wants clear liability rules to be established by national governments and for consumers to be provided with the same information online that they would see in stores, such as labeling information and the full disclosure of ingredients.
‘The same products showing up all over the world’
The skin whitening industry is estimated at $8 billion worldwide and is predicted to reach $11.8 billion by 2026. Studies suggest that women account for almost 80% of sales worldwide.
Mercury has long been used in skin whitening products due to its ability to block the production of melanin in the skin – the pigment that gives color to skin. It is extremely toxic to health at high levels and can impact the body in various ways.
“Mercury is easily absorbed through the skin and can cause rashes, allergic reactions, and even kidney damage and nervous system disorders. It may also result in harmful changes in the placenta, subsequently causing damage to the fetus during pregnancy, and it can pass to children through skin-to-skin contact,” explained Lymberidi-Settimo. Studies have shown that households may also become contaminated.
A total of 36 brands made products identified by the ZMWG as containing high levels of mercury and the majority were available in multiple countries and continents through a range of online platforms. Among these were some of the products by brands such as Pakistan-based companies Goree, Aneeza, Faiza, Chandni and Noor, Thailand-based Kim, China-based Jiaoli, and Mexico-based La Tia Mana. All but La Tia Mana had been identified in previous ZMWG reports but continue to contain high levels of mercury and be available online, according to the latest report.
“When we look year after year, we see the same brand names and the same products showing up all over the world,” said Bender.
When asked for comment, Goree told CNN that its creams contain less than 1ppm mercury but did not respond to further questions or requests for comment regarding the latest ZMWG findings, which found the cream to contain 21699 ppm mercury.
On its website, Goree warns that fake products, including one named ‘Goree whitening cream’ are being sold using the company’s name and brand and cautions that these products contain high levels mercury. The company clarifies that its product is ‘Goree beauty cream.’ However, this latter named product is one of the creams obtained and tested by ZMWG in its report, as well as ‘Goree Day and Night cream’ which the company also makes, according to its website.
Chandni, Aneeza, Faiza, Noor and Kim did not respond to CNN’s request for comment and CNN was unable to find a valid contact for Jiaoli, despite multiple enquiries with online sellers.
La Tia Mana informed CNN that products resembling theirs were once made by a separate company in Mexico and are now discontinued. The company claimed the products tested by ZMWG were these discontinued products, adding that their own product is homemade using ingredients bought in the US. When asked for more clarity, the company did not respond.
Regulating the sale of mercury-containing products: online retailers respond
Bender and Lymberidi-Settimo explained that while platforms often take products down when informed of their sale, they often appear again later.
For example, CNN contacted eBay in December highlighting the availability of Chandni beauty cream and Goree day and night cream on its site based on the findings of the 2019 ZMWG report. The products were taken down but in February, Chandni beauty cream was available again through a different seller.
eBay told CNN it employs “a combination of digital and manual surveillance tools to remove products that do not comply with applicable health and safety regulations including skin lightening products containing banned ingredients hydroquinone and mercury.” The company said it has blocked over 10,000 listing attempts for prohibited skin lightening products, but when asked why these measures are not working, given that products continue to be available on its platform, eBay did not respond.
According to the report, a greater number of the skin whitening products tested by ZMWG and found to contain high levels of mercury were available on eBay, Ubuy, Shopee (owned by Sea Limited) and Flipkart. Mercury-containing products were also purchased on Daraz and Aliexpress, both part of the Alibaba group, and two creams were bought on Amazon’s India site and Amazon.com.
Bender acknowledges that Amazon appear to have cracked down on sales of these products in the US, adding that this is probably due to the lawsuit brought against the company in 2019 for failure to warn customers about toxic levels of mercury in the skin whitening products it sells. A California court ruled Amazon was exempt from liability for the products sold by third-party sellers.
Amazon removed listings for the two products purchased by ZMWG when CNN informed them of the mercury levels they contained. As with eBay, Amazon told CNN in a statement that it monitors its store and has “proactive measures in place to prevent prohibited products from being listed.” It added that third party sellers are required to follow all applicable laws, regulations, and Amazon policies when listing items for sale and those who violate policies are subject to action including potential removal of their account.
Shopee, Flipkart, Daraz and Aliexpress gave similar responses to those from Amazon and eBay. The four companies all explained that the sale of illegal or hazardous products is prohibited on their sites and that sellers are expected to follow local regulations and company policies. The companies also outlined checks and monitoring systems they have in place to prevent or remove products that violate these policies.
Shopee added that it works with local governments and health authorities to take down listings that are flagged as containing high levels of mercury. The company also encouraged users to reach out to Shopee if they encounter similar listings on its platform.
CNN additionally asked all six e-commerce sites why their surveillance measures were failing to work, given products containing mercury remained easily accessible. They were also asked what more would be done now that this report has highlighted an ongoing problem.
Daraz and Aliexpress explained that they continuously update their measures to ensure users access safe and trusted products. “We will continue to do so and take required action should there be sellers and products that don’t meet our safety standards and our code of compliance,” they told CNN.
Amazon, eBay, Flipkart and Shopee did not address the above two questions in their responses.
After publication, a legal representative for Ubuy responded to CNN, stating that the company was not aware of these products being sold on its sites and that UBuy addresses the sale of violative products and goods through its websites using algorithms to block them from appearing on a country’s website or in search results.
The company added that it has now initiated a program to block specific products and goods from being viewed or sold through UBuy websites and to create a “blacklist of manufacturers” to ban any manufacturers whose products or goods warrant such action, “as in this instance with the inclusion of dangerous levels of mercury in any product/good.”
Promee Tasneem, 28, is a schoolteacher in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Two years ago, she wanted to become fairer skinned ahead of her wedding and began using two of the creams identified to contain high levels of mercury in the report, which she purchased on one of the sites named in the report, she told CNN.
“I have always been a little on the darker side and had dark circles [around my eyes]. So, in March 2020, nine months before I was to get married, I ordered the two fairness creams,” she told CNN.
She used the two creams intermittently for eight months and began seeing results just one month into using them. But seven months later, the side effects began. “I had become fairer, but I had also started developing red rashes below my eyes, which was where I would put more of the cream,” she said. “Soon, my eyes started watering all the time and I went to a doctor who told me that what’s happening to me is a side-effect of the creams I am using.”
On instruction from her dermatologist Promee stopped using the products immediately, but her rashes became worse before they got better. “Even now, I cannot use any cream – and I have red spots all over,” she said. “If need be, I use aloe vera to moisturize my skin.”
Her advice to others tempted by the promise of fairer skin is to avoid these creams at all costs.
“I can only warn people to not use these creams,” Promee said. “Temporary beauty is not worth lifelong troubles.”
CNN’s Pallabi Munsi contributed to this report.
This article has been updated to include a response from UBuy.