By Elesha George
Antigua and Barbuda could soon be among a number of countries worldwide that have banned products that contain skin lightening chemicals like bleaching creams and other cosmetic products.
Skin lightening products are known to weaken the skin’s barrier and can affect internal health over time.
Commonly used creams with bleaching agents found in Antigua and Barbuda include Topiclear, Ambi, Caro White and a type of blue soap colloquially called ‘cake soap’. They are sold in stores, supermarkets and some pharmacies.
Dr Linroy Christian, Director of Analytical Services, said his team at the government’s central laboratory are also looking for local home-made products that are advertised as skin lightening creams and promise to tone the skin.
“We’re focusing on a lot of commercial brands initially but we want any particular skin lightening cream. We’ve already had upwards, I think, of 179 products that we’ve bought so far,” he said.
The samples collected to date include cosmetics like make-up foundation, mascara, hair gel and soaps that are being screened for mercury.
The director shared that eventually they will test for other heavy metals like arsenic and lead which may also be present in these products and are also quite toxic.
“We’ve had some interesting data on the mercury levels in skin lightening creams and it’s come up actually quite high in some instances,” he explained.
“A lot of these products are not labelled to show that they contain mercury. All of the brands that we’ve tested other than that particular one that have detected mercury, it doesn’t state on the label that it does contain mercury and we do not know the source of the mercury as well.
“There’s only one in the region that clearly states that it does have mercury.”
According to Dr Christian, his team has already collected samples of creams like those imported from various regions including Africa, Europe and the United States that are “dangerously high” in mercury.
The team has a draft regulation that will ban the importation of skin lightening creams and other cosmetics that contain above safe mercury levels of one part per million.
“It will have to go to the minister and from there we have to look at having this regulation being monitored under the Pesticides and Toxic Chemical Act and this would ban certain creams that are above one part per million of mercury.
“That is the threshold that we are proposing and if that is acceptable from the political directorate then this regulation will be enforced,” he said.
The ban on skin lightening products is the result of an ongoing project to measure the levels of mercury in the air, human hair, fish and birds and to eventually establish a Mercury Monitoring Network for the Caribbean, headquartered in Antigua.
Laboratory staff, in addition to other work underway, are currently collecting samples of skin lightening products from across the Caribbean region to have them tested in the lab.
“We want to ensure that people using these products are aware of the risks associated with these products.
“If you’re applying this to your skin, it will become interned into the body eventually and then you will have toxic effects on the liver and the brain and therefore kidneys as well,” Dr Christian added.
Toxic chemicals in skin lightening creams can also be passed on to children during breast feeding.
Other countries in the region like Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Dominica, Guyana, St Lucia, Barbados, St Kitts and Nevis, and Suriname are also partnering with the department in Antigua to measure the impact of mercury in skin bleaching products, and to measure the levels of heavy metals in other areas that affect health and the environment.