Amazon and eBay remove illegal mercury-containing skin lighteners following NGO exposé

By Kacey Culliney contact

- Last updated on GMT

Out of 158 skin lightening products purchased by The Zero Mercury Working Group, 95 contained illegal and high levels of mercury (Getty Images)
Out of 158 skin lightening products purchased by The Zero Mercury Working Group, 95 contained illegal and high levels of mercury (Getty Images)

Related tags: Mercury, Amazon, Ebay, Regulation, safety, compliance, e-commerce, skin lightening

Online retail giants Amazon and eBay have pulled several illegal skin lightening creams containing mercury sold in the UK, Belgium and US following investigative findings from international NGO coalition The Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG).

eBay said it was also taking “enforcement action”​ against the sellers.

In 2013, the European Union and US were among signatories that signed the Minamata Convention on Mercury​ stipulating use of mercury and mercury compounds should be phased out. Under Annex A of the Minamata Convention, all manufacture, import and export of mercury-containing products, including cosmetics with more than 1 part per million (1ppm, or 1 µg/g) mercury, will be banned after 2020. However, certain European Union laws already ban use in cosmetics - notably the Cosmetics Regulation​ and also Regulation EU 2017/852​,​ signed by the EU and 26 Member States declaring mercury a “very toxic substance which represents a global and major threat to human health”​ and prohibiting the export, import and manufacture of mercury-added products, except those necessary for military use or research.

Worldwide, many countries have also banned mercury-containing products which, for cosmetics, largely relates to skin lightening products.

Two-thirds of illegal mercury skin lightening products purchased online

The ZMWG coalition - made up of more than 110 public interest, environmental and health organisations - released findings this week​ from tests conducted throughout 2019. The coalition bought skin lightening products for analysis offline and online across 12 countries, including the UK and Belgium.

Of the 158 products bought and tested in independent EU and US laboratories, 95 exceeded the legal mercury limit in the EU and US of 1 ppm (part per million), with mercury levels ranging from 40 ppm to over 130,000 ppm. The highest levels found in products purchased through Amazon UK were 11,928 ppm and even higher on eBay in Belgium at 20,813 ppm.

More than two-thirds of all products exceeding legal levels were purchased online from internet retailers, including Amazon and eBay, among others. In total, 19 products were purchased from Amazon in the UK and US and 17 products from eBay in Belgium and US.

Michael Bender, mercury policy project director and co-coordinator for the Zero Mercury Working Group, said: “Despite these illegal high mercury products being essentially banned by governments around the globe, our testing result shows the same products continuing to be sold locally and on the internet. In particular, e-commerce giants are not above the law and must be held accountable.”

Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, project manager at the European Environmental Bureau and international coordinator of the Zero Mercury Working Group, said mercury was a dangerous neurotoxic that had to be “effectively controlled”.

“Internet retailers like Amazon and eBay must stop these illegal products from being sold on their sites, as they have recently pledged to do in the EU.”

‘Tracing of the supply chains is often impossible in online trade’

e-commerce is an important and growing market for cosmetics (Getty Images)
e-commerce is an important and growing market for cosmetics (Getty Images)

Speaking to CosmeticsDesign-Europe about the findings, Dr. Annelie Struessmann, technical regulatory director at international regulatory services firm CONUSBAT and president of Cosmetics Consultants Europe, said e-commerce presented “many hurdles” ​from a safety perspective.

“The internet, at the current status, opens ways for incompliant products, of course also for product fraud,”​ Struessmann said. “Tracing of the supply chains is often impossible in online trade as the products go directly to consumers. Therefore, manufacturers or traders, which want to bypass the laws or have no knowledge of laws can use these trading channels on a worldwide scale to supply products, which have not been assessed at all for their safety.”

For the national competent authorities responsible for in-market control, Struessmann said it was “almost impossible”​ to get hold of such products or hold anyone responsible for the incompliance.

While many legal and safely marked cosmetic products were sold online by responsible industry, she said the internet had to somehow be “regulated or restricted” ​to combat criminal and irresponsible trade, although this was, of course, difficult to do.

Emma Trogen, legal affairs director of trade association Cosmetics Europe, said the European Union’s Cosmetic Products Regulation (No 1223/2009) was designed to ensure all cosmetic products and their ingredients on the EU market were “safe for use by consumers” ​and therefore had to be upheld. “Any product that does not comply with the CPR is therefore illegal whether sold offline or online. That is why the enforcement of the CPR by the market surveillance authorities is so important,​" Trogen said.

Amazon and eBay aware of issue and have removed ‘products in question’

In a statement sent to CosmeticsDesign-Europe, Amazon said: “All marketplace sellers must follow our selling guidelines and those who don’t will be subject to action, including potential removal of their account. The products in question are no longer available.”

An eBay spokesperson said it had also removed the items in question and was also “taking enforcement action against the sellers”​ because such products were banned from eBay’s platform.

Dr Emma Meredith, director-general of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA), said it was unfortunate such products were being sold and CTPA was keen such illegal practices were stopped and unsafe products removed from the market.

Meredith said in Europe and other parts of the world, distributors online and offline had responsibilities in ensuring consumer safety and CTPA would continue to provide a deeper understanding of the regulations, as well as drive consumer awareness.

“It is important that we raise consumers’ awareness about illegal skin lighteners and work with the relevant enforcement agencies to crack down on those willingly disregarding the law,”​ she said.

A meeting among the Minamata Convention parties is scheduled in Geneva this week where the Zero Mercury Working Group will present findings from this research along with a report​ to “assist authorities in effectively implementing the Minamata Convention”,​ it said.

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