A watchdog group on hazardous substances is seeking an active role for the country’s primary policymaking and coordinating body on women and gender equality concerns to protect women from harms caused by mercury lurking in some cosmetics that promise to whiten the skin tone, cure skin disorders and fight ageing.
In a letter sent on the eve of the International Women’s Day, the EcoWaste Coalition requested the Philippine Commission on Women (PCW) through Chairperson Dr. Sandra Montano and Executive Director Atty. Kristine Rosary Yuzon-Chaves to join the drive to rid the marketplace of unsafe cosmetics containing mercury and other hazardous substances.
“We make this request in light of the need to protect human health and the environment from mercury contamination due to the unabated importation, distribution, sale (offline and online) and use of a wide array of mercury-containing skin lightening products despite the numerous public health advisories issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA),” wrote Aileen Lucero, National Coordinator, EcoWaste Coalition.
“And despite the efforts of environmental health groups to alert consumers about the dangers posed by such chemical whiteners.”
Based on the group’s investigative work, the unethical and unlawful trade continues despite the ASEAN-wide ban on mercury as ingredient in cosmetic product formulations adopted in 2007, and the global phase-out in 2020 of such cosmetics as stipulated under the Minamata Convention on Mercury of which the Philippines is one of the state parties.
The group, which has been tracking mercury in skin whitening cosmetics since 2011 as part of its mission towards a zero waste and toxics-free society, presented a two-point proposal to the officials of the PCW.
First, for the PCW to work with other agencies in developing tougher measures to break the unlawful trade of skin lightening cosmetics containing toxic mercury.
Tougher crackdowns on smuggled cosmetics across the supply chain are required to protect consumers against mercury intoxication, the group asserted.
Such crackdowns will also protect non-consumers since non-users such as children can be exposed through the inhalation of mercury vapors released from a mercury-added cosmetic or through skin contact with mercury contaminated items like beddings and towels, the group added.
Locally manufactured cosmetics must also be free from other harmful substances such as hydroquinone, the group emphasized.
Second, for the PCW to lead an advocacy campaign that will celebrate and promote the acceptance of our natural skin color as the easiest way to protect the Filipino people, especially women and girls, from mercury and other hazardous substances in whitening cosmetics.
The said campaign should inform women, who are the main target of skin bleaching, lightening or whitening cosmetics, of the hazards of consuming products containing mercury, and make them aware that the safest protection is to embrace their natural skin color and not to use chemical whiteners, noting that women are most vulnerable to the toxic effects of mercury and other hazardous substances, especially if they are of child-bearing age.
As the group pointed out, the proposed campaign around the theme “natural skin color is beautiful” (or equivalent messaging like “brown is beautiful” or “beauty has no skin tone”) will challenge, if not correct, the prevalent white-centric standards equating “whiteness” with “beauty,” “perfection” and “success” in love and life, which tend to lure women into getting hooked to skin whitening cosmetics.
“This campaign, we believe, will enrich and support the ‘inclusive society’ being espoused by PCW that also overrides differences in skin colors or shades,” said Lucero.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “adverse health effects of the inorganic mercury contained in skin lightening creams and soaps include kidney damage, skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring, reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, anxiety, depression, psychosis and peripheral neuropathy.”