Recent headlines claim a woman went blind from high levels of mercury found in a skin care product. Could cosmetics bought over-the-counter really cause permanent vision loss?
It is possible, said Ashley Brissette, MD, ophthalmologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. High amounts of mercury can cause various health complications, including damage to the eye. While the average person is not likely to get mercury poisoning, unregulated cosmetics sometimes contain the toxin. Without clear labeling, it can be difficult to tell which products are actually safe.
Can I go blind from mercury poisoning?
Several studies suggest mercury from unsafe occupational environments, food contamination, or in beauty products containing the chemical can be hazardous to a person’s health, including eye health. Mercury can be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin, and can affect many areas of the body by getting into a person’s blood stream.
In terms of eye health, high levels of mercury can affect all parts of the eye. Known symptoms include discolorization of the lens, blurry vision, conjunctivitis, or even peripheral and central vision loss if the retina or optic nerve are affected.
“Because cosmetics are an unregulated industry, it can be difficult to study and quantify. But we do know that high levels of mercury are not good for the body,” said Dr. Brissette. “The more time spent exposed and the higher the amount of toxins, the more risk someone is for health complications, including vision loss.”
How much mercury is too much?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises mercury should only be used in a very small amounts, no more than 65 parts per million (ppm) in the finished product.
How do I know if my cosmetic product has mercury in it?
Mercury is most often found in skin lightening or anti-aging products. Though the FDA does provide guidelines for safe mercury use in small doses, cosmetics is an unregulated industry. That means that beauty products do not need to get approved before being sold. That’s how products with unsafe amounts of mercury can sometimes still be sold online or in stores.
The FDA suggests the following for consumer safety:
- Check the ingredients list. If mercury is listed, don’t buy it.
- Don’t buy products without labels. The FDA requires all products include an ingredients list. If the product is unlabeled, assume the product is being sold illegally.
- Avoid buying products online from disreputable retailers.
- Throw out products you suspect might contain mercury. Check local hazardous waste guidelines for how to best dispose of the product safely.
- Seek medical attention immediately if you experience any symptoms after using a new cosmetic product, including numbness, changes in vision, changes in hearing, tremors or irritability.
- Speak to your ophthalmologist before using new skin and eye care products.
Should I stop eating fish and other foods with mercury in it?
Although seafood does contain mercury, a large body of research shows there are health benefits linked to eating fish regularly. A diet including moderate amounts of seafood and plenty of fruits and vegetables, also known as the Mediterranean diet, is good for eye health and could even reduce risk of eye disease.
Some fish have lower mercury levels than others. The FDA recommends pregnant women and children under the age of 11 avoid eating fish with higher levels of mercury. This chart can be referenced for fish choices based on mercury levels.
While most people won’t need to make significant lifestyle changes to avoid mercury poisoning, the public should be aware of the danger of too much exposure. If you have any health concerns or are unsure if you are at risk, speak to your ophthalmologist.