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Minamata Convention on Mercury: Cosmetics
Minamata Convention on Mercury: Cosmetics

Phasing Out Mercury-added Products: Skin Lightening Creams and Other Cosmetics

Mercury is an ingredient in skin lightening or anti-aging creams used by consumers around the world. In an effort to reduce mercury exposure to humans and the environment, the Minamata Convention on Mercury implements a ban on the manufacture and trade of cosmetics products with mercury concentrations >1 ppm beginning in 2020. 

In collaboration with the Zero Mercury Working Group, BRI has developed methodology to test skin ligntening products for mercury, and has collected and tested hundreds of samples from countries across the globe.

Project Coordinator: Oksana Lane

Project Partner: ZMWG

New Report


Consistent with other research, a new study by Zero Mercury Working Group (in collaboration with BRI and others) indicates that a significant percentage of skin-lightening creams sold worldwide contains dangerous levels of mercury. In 2017 and 2018, 338 skin-lightening creams from 22 countries were collected by seventeen non-governmental organization (NGO) partners from around the world and tested for mercury. 34 creams (10% of the samples) had mercury concentrations ranging from 93 - 16,353 parts per million (ppm). These levels significantly exceeded not only the legal standard established by countries that regulate these products, but also the provisions set forth in the Minamata Convention disallowing after 2020 the “manufacture, import or export” of cosmetics with a mercury content above 1 ppm.

Click here to download the full report.

What is the Issue?

What is the Issue?

Mercury salts are used in skin lightening creams because they inhibit the formation of melanin, the pigment that gives human skin, hair, and eyes their color. Mercury is also added to some cosmetics, such as mascara, for its properties as a preservative, preventing the growth of bacteria and fungi. A wide range of mercury levels are found in these products and typically the amount of mercury is not disclosed to the consumer.
What are the Risks to Human Health and the Environment?

What are the Risks to Human Health and the Environment?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the main health risk from mercury exposure is kidney damage, but the use of these products can also result in allergic reactions, skin irritation, or neurotoxicity (harm to the nervous system). In addition to human health, the environment is also at risk. Mercury from these products is eventually released into wastewater where it enters the environment and, under certain conditions, is absorbed into the food web, contaminating the food we eat.

Watch the World Health Organization's video on Mercury in skin lightening products HERE.

The Minamata Convention and Cosmetics

The Minamata Convention and Cosmetics

Article 4 of the Minamata Convention on Mercury prohibits the manufacture, import, or export of specific mercury-added products after 2020. Under this Article, all cosmetics will be required to have mercury concentration of less than 1 ppm. In order to effectively implement this regulation, customs agents across the globe will need an efficient method of identifying products with high mercury content. 

Our Project

Our Project

BRI is testing skin lightening and anti-aging creams for mercury content in order to meet two goals: (1) to build a global database on mercury content of cosmetic products; and (2) to provide customs agents with the means to efficiently screen imported products for the presence of mercury.

To date, we have analyzed over 250 samples of skin lightening creams purchased throughout countries in North America, the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, and Africa. 

We found that roughly 10% of tested products contained mercury, in concentrations ranging from 4 to 16,000 ppm. Of these products, only one listed mercury as an ingredient.

Next Steps: Become a Partner

Assessing the hazards in consumer products is vital in order to protect the health of local communities. Although some countries require clear and accurate ingredient labelling for these products, other countries may allow for the omittance of an ingredient list, or may accept an incomplete or misleading list. If you are interested in joining the international effort to test cosmetic products for mercury contamination, please consider the following steps:

  1. Contact BRI. We will provide guidance and protocols on all aspects of the process.
  2. Develop partnerships among and within your country’s Ministries and local nongovernmental organizations.
  3. Determine your goals and objectives, which BRI can then help to connect with the Minamata Convention.
  4. Identify funding sources to cover expenses (e.g., purchasing products to submit for testing, shipping, lab analysis).
  5. Identify markets most likely to sell contaminated creams/products.
  6. Ship samples to BRI.
  7. BRI will analyze samples, and interpret the results of chemical analyses.
  8. Submit report to country Ministry.
Learn More


In addition to helping meet the objectives of the Minamata Convention, participation in this sampling effort provides important country-specific mercury data on products that may affect your health. Download a copy of our 2-page flyer to learn more about how you can participate in our efforts to sample mercury in cosmetic products. 

Phasing Out Mercury-added Products: Skin Lightening Products and Other Cosmetics

Biodiversity Research Institute