Skin-lightening creams can damage the central nervous system, warns report

The findings of the report were published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC), Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report

The next time you reach for your skin-lightening cream, you may want to reconsider using it. A report by researchers from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) has found that a skin-lightening cream from Mexico contained lethal levels of mercury. This is said to have had a dangerous effect on the central nervous system of a female patient, who now finds herself unable to care for herself despite discontinuing the usage of the cream months ago.

Methylmercury, a poisonous form of mercury, was found in the cream. The researchers deemed this the first such case of poisoning in 50 years in the US in the report. The findings of the report were published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC), Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Paul Blanc, the senior author of the report, said that most damaging creams of this nature are intentionally contaminated with inorganic mercury. She added, "But in this case, the patient used a skin-lightening product containing organic mercury, which is far more toxic. This form of mercury can cause profound damage to the central nervous system that may even worsen after cessation of use."

Skin Cream
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Aggravating symptoms and condition

In the report, the authors narrate that the preliminary symptoms for which the patient sought treatment were for the weakness of her upper extremities and involuntary muscle movements. However, the patient's condition worsened while she was treated, and had to be admitted to a local hospital after two weeks. The symptoms had escalated to speech difficulties, loss of balance and blurred vision. Her condition progressed to excited delirium.

Two weeks after being admitted to the hospital, urine and blood tests revealed toxic levels of mercury in her body. Following this, the hospital notified the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and the California Poison Control System (CPCS).

Long-term use of the product

Upon inquiry, the members of the patient's family revealed her long-term usage of the cream manufactured in Mexico. The patient was administered chelation therapy—a treatment for heavy metal poisoning where a chelator drug bonds with the metal present in the bloodstream and leaves the body through urine. However, the patient's condition remains grave despite the reduction in mercury levels.

"Central nervous system toxicity, as in this case, is the hallmark of organic mercury – it typically comes on after weeks to months of exposure. Once manifested, it quickly progresses and often worsens, despite removal of any further exposure," said Blanc, in a statement.

Shift to UCSF and continued hospitalization

After suspicions of organic mercury poisoning, the patient was moved to UCSF. Additional testing revealed that the skin-whitening cream was tainted with methylmercury iodide; methylmercury. CDC confirmed the result.

The report adds that the patient is being fed through a tube in order to deliver the necessary nutrition that her body requires as she is unable to consume food on her own. CDPH is investigating possible mercury contamination in other members of the patient's family due to exposure to the cream.

Caution while choosing beauty products

Craig Smollin, a co-author of the paper, urged consumers to ensure that the foil seal under the lid shows no signs of a breach and asked consumers to choose products made only by reputed manufacturers.

"They should purchase creams from well-known stores and avoid those with hand-made labels or without labels. Ingredients must be listed, and directions and warnings should be in English," he said.