It has always amazed me the extent to which individuals are not satisfied with their physical appearance; this dissatisfaction is the foundation of much cosmetic surgery. However, it also has dangerous implications. After decades of warnings, individuals are finally becoming aware of the danger of skin "tans" (e.g., melanoma). Skin lightening products have also been subject to some recent publicity, but the scope of the health threat has not been fully publicized.
In 2004, the NY City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) conducted the nation’s first local Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Analysis of urine specimens from 1,840 adult New Yorkers collected during the survey yielded a geometric mean mercury concentration of 0.73 µg/L, slightly higher than the national average of 0.5 µg/L. However, the researchers also found that 13 women had urine mercury concentrations exceeding the state’s reportable level of 20 µg/L; 4 women had levels exceeding 50 µg/L. All 13 highly exposed women were Hispanic or black, and 10 had been born in the Dominican Republic. Each of the 9 women interviewed on followup had used mercury-containing skin-lightening cream. One such product sampled by DOHMH workers contained 6,190 ppm mercury; the FDA limit for mercury in skin-care products is 1 ppm.
More recently, other ingredients have been found present in such "cosmetics" that have dangerous or potentially dangerous properties, such as hydroquinone and corticosteroids. [See, for example, http://blogs.webmd.com/eye-on-vision/2006/08/hydroquinone-fda-frowns-on-skin-lightener.html and http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/16/health/16skin.html.] This is a trans-national issue, unfortunately. [See http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-3083.2010.03629.x/full and http://188.8.131.52/scholar?q=cache:Rh_Kuahfiw4J:scholar.google.com/+corticosteroids+skin-lightening+creams+dangers+harm&hl=en&as_sdt=0,5.]
What is ironic is that many individuals want to be what they are not, darker if light and light if dark. The price of such dissatisfaction can be severe.
The NY study can be found at http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.1002396. As the authors of the study note, population-based biomonitoring has the potential to identify previously unrecognized sources of exposure to hazardous materials among the population.