In the late 1990s, a group of Japanese researchers set out to investigate whether small-scale gold mining operations near the shores of East Africa’s Lake Victoria were resulting in mercury contamination of local fish and human populations. The group included Dr. Masazumi Harada who began his medical career in the early 1960s by studying the devastating effects of severe mercury poisoning caused by industrial wastewater from the Chisso chemical factory in Minamata, Japan. The effects included serious brain impairment, birth defects, and even death. Harada became one of the world’s foremost authorities on “Minamata disease,” devoting much of his career to identifying outbreaks internationally. Harada and his colleagues set their sights on Lake Victoria’s shoreline because they knew that local artisanal miners there, as in Brazil’s Amazon, were increasingly using a mercury amalgamation technique to recover gold from ore.

Much to their surprise, the Japanese researchers found that it was not Tanzanian and Kenyan gold miners or fishermen who possessed the highest levels of mercury but rather women who used mercury soaps to lighten and clarify their skin. Whereas the miners’ and fishermen’s mean mercury levels were normal, the level for women using mercury soaps significantly exceeded the critical benchmark for Minamata. To scientists more familiar with the use of mercury in industrial processes than cosmetics products, this was an unanticipated finding that directed their attention away from artisanal mining and environmental contaminants and towards women’s bodies and consumer habits.

Mercury pollution is a by-product of everyday beauty routines, not just manufacturing and mining regimes. Through intimate as well as industrial processes, mercury toxins enter bodies and waterways, poisoning the world. The global trade in skin lighteners has continued to grow since the late 1990s. Estimated now at over 15 billion U.S. dollars per year, it stretches from East Asia and into South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. To achieve paler, blemish-free, or more youthful complexions, consumers turn to a range of soaps, creams, and other products. Those available to poor consumers often contain mercury.

The products the Japanese researchers stumbled across in East Africa were packaged as “antiseptic soaps.” When used to lighten skin color, consumers would lather the soap on faces and other body parts, let it dry, and often leave it on overnight. The soaps were manufactured in Europe, most in the United Kingdom. Harada and his colleagues noted that although the Tanzanian and Kenyan government had banned the sale of mercury soaps, they were “unexpectedly . . . . very easily available” (Harada et al., 2001; Harada et al., 1999). Japanese researchers, in their efforts to map Minamata hotspots across the globe, had run headlong into the illicit transnational trade in mercury-containing cosmetics and governments’ half-hearted efforts to stop it.

Image 1: Although banned by the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments, mercury-containing soaps were widely available during the late 1990s when the Japanese researchers stumbled across their use. These three brands were purchased at a market in Mpanda, Tanzania. Reproduced from Christian M. Glahder, Peter W. U. Appel, and Gert Asmund, Mercury in Soap in Tanzania (NERI Technical Report No. 306, National Environmental Research Institute, Denmark, 1999).

Recently, toiletries containing mercury have once again surprised medical researchers in Africa. This time the researchers are not from abroad. Instead, they are South African doctors and scientists seeking to understand and curb the ill effects of skin lightening cosmetics in their own country. In laboratory analysis of products sold in Durban and Cape Town, researchers found that over forty percent contain mercury, often combined with hydroquinone and topical corticosteroids. Although hydroquinone and steroids are also banned for use in cosmetics, they are regularly listed on product labels. Mercury, by contrast, never appears on labels (Dlova et al., 2012; Maneli et al. 2016). A 2010 survey of consumer attitudes towards mercury-containing products in eight countries (including Kenya and Senegal but not South Africa) suggests why it might be omitted: where mercury is a well-known toxin, its appearance on cosmetic labels deters purchase.

These findings are remarkable for a couple of reasons. First, South Africa (1975) – like the United States (1973), the European Economic Union (1976), and Nigeria (1982) – long ago banned mercury from cosmetics. In the years following South Africa’s mercury ban, opposition to skin lighteners rooted in both political and health concerns grew and became a corollary of the anti-apartheid movement. Ultimately, a coalition of Black Consciousness, medical, and consumer activists convinced the apartheid government, during its waning months, to pass the world’s most restrictive, if now frequently flouted, regulations on skin lighteners.

Whereas many countries today ban specific active ingredients, South Africa is the only one that also prohibits cosmetic advertisements from making any claims to “bleach,” “lighten,” or “whiten” the skin. This prohibition bears the anti-racist politics of the broader movement from which it emerged. The South African campaign of the 1980s focused on hydroquinone as the most worrisome active ingredient, situating mercury as a problem of a bygone era. Efforts in the post-apartheid period to raise public awareness about skin lighteners have focused on the harmful effects of products containing hydroquinone and topical steroids. Considered an outmoded ingredient, mercury has rarely been mentioned.

The South African finding that forty percent of skin lighteners contain mercury is also remarkable because it is a much higher portion than that found elsewhere. In recent years, as the international market for skin lightening products has boomed, journalists, regulators, and scientists have sounded the alarm bell about mercury in some products. Within the United States, reports of people using mercury-containing soaps and cosmetics frequently feature poor immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. The World Health Organization issued a bulletin on the matter in 2011, warning that the health dangers extend beyond users as the mercury they discharge travels through wastewater and into the environment. Three years later, a study of 549 skin-lightening products purchased either on-line or in stores in the United States, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, and Sri Lanka found that six percent of the products contain mercury (Hamann et al., 2014). Six percent is a small, if significant, portion compared with the forty percent found in the South African studies.

What does this unexpected and uneven resurgence tell us about mercury’s circulation and persistence? And what does it reveal about mercury’s visibility and concealment?

Mercury’s resurgence in soaps and cosmetics demonstrates the tremendous reach of what Michelle Murphy (2013) has termed “chemical infrastructures,” the distributions of industrially produced chemicals as they move across decades, through the atmosphere, landscapes, waterways, commodities, and bodies, and into realms of recognition. Chemical exposure pairs uncertainty with diffusion. Toxins spread while their sources remain unidentified and their deleterious effects appear far downstream. As Murphy (2006) demonstrated in her earlier study of sick building syndrome and Nick Caverly discusses in his contribution to this series, such exposure is notoriously difficult to trace and prove.

The infrastructures that produce the mercury-containing soaps and cosmetics sold in Africa are geographically expansive and congenitally duplicitous. The mercury itself might be mined in Spain, China, Kyrgyzstan, and Algeria or recycled from industrial facilities in Europe. The soaps and cosmetics are manufactured in Cote D’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, France, India, Italy, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom, and United States. Some products are distributed through the diasporic networks of shopkeepers and traders. Others arrive in stores and markets through the more formal, if no less illicit, distribution chains of cosmetic manufacturers.

For example, the mercury soaps sold in East Africa during the 1990s were legally manufactured in the United Kingdom despite the fact that their sale was illegal there as well as in Kenya and Tanzania. From the start, the UK-based manufacturers had in mind unlawful markets in former colonies and among black and brown immigrant communities in former metropoles, most notably London and Brussels. Only in 2003 did the European Union ban the export of mercury-containing cosmetics.

A key pillar of these chemical infrastructures is mercury’s deep history and relative efficacy as a clarifying and lightening agent. Ancient burials in Asia, South America, and the Mediterranean region suggest that humans long ago recognized mercury, in the form of cinnabar dust, as a formidable anti-bacterial that could forestall decay. Mercury was a coveted ingredient in cosmetics, since at least early modern times, because of its capacity to clear blemishes, reduce uneven coloring, and induce overall lightening. When combined with chlorine and then injected or applied topically, mercury has effectively, if lethally, combatted bacterial infections, ranging from acne to syphilis.

By the early twentieth century, pharmaceutical and medical textbooks recommended ammoniated mercury and other mercury salts for treating skin infections and spots of darker pigmentation while often warning of their harmful effects. Creams containing ammoniated mercury, usually marketed as “freckle removers” or “freckle waxes,” ranked among the period’s most popular cosmetics used by white women (or those in the process of being recognized as white) and some black and brown women in the United Kingdom, the United States, and other imperial outposts.

When the U.S. Congress passed the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act in 1938, mercury–containing creams were among the first products targeted for regulation. Soon after, government and industry scientists identified mercury’s temporary (generally, as long as the product is used) depigmenting mechanism as two-fold: it inhibits the formation of melanin through rendering inactive the enzyme tyrosinase and it exfoliates the tanned, outer layers of the epidermis through the production of hydrochloric acid. When included in cosmetics, mercury’s effects extend below the surface of the skin, altering appearances by disrupting biochemical processes.

As the negative environmental and health consequences of mercury became ever more apparent in the post-World War II period, including through the devastation at Minamata, the United States and other countries imposed tougher restrictions on mercury, including banning all but trace amounts from cosmetics. Given mercury’s deep history as a relatively effective depigmenting agent combined with growing global demand for skin lighteners and lax enforcement of trade and cosmetic regulations, it was perhaps naïve not to anticipate a resurgence of mercury-containing cosmetics in our times.

The researchers who study these cosmetics are also part of mercury’s expansive infrastructures. Minamata made mercury’s bodily effects painfully visible, causing a group of Japanese medical doctors to become the world’s leading experts on environmental mercury poisoning. This expertise brought them to East Africa, searching for organic mercury that might have passed from gold ore processing through the aquatic food supply and into human bodies in the highly toxic form of methylmercury. Instead, they discerned a new, consumer rather than industrial, starting point for the dispersal of mercury. The inorganic mercury in antiseptic soaps could poison users’ bodies and be made even more lethal as it passed into the ecosystem through bodily waste and greywater, transformed into methylmercury, and returned to human bodies through the consumption of fish. Here was a visceral instance of environmentalist Rachel Carson’s insight (1962) that small, domestic choices were making the world uninhabitable.

For others in East Africa, the poisonous presence of mercury products had been visible for some time. As the Japanese researchers soon learned, the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments had, in fact, banned the soaps in the early 1990s. Moreover, twenty years earlier, medical faculty at Nairobi’s Kenyatta National Hospital published an article in the British Journal of Medicine on an outbreak of nephrotic syndrome or kidney failure among “young sophisticated African women” who used perfumed skin-lightening creams (Barr et al., 1972). This article became one of the most widely-cited studies of the ill health effects of mercury-containing cosmetics. That Harada and his colleagues were initially unaware of it suggests how beauty practices had, until then, fallen outside their research purview.

Mercury’s infrastructures straddle and support geo-political inequities and prejudices. Mercury’s presence or absence and the very forms in which it appears have become a measure of states’ regulatory powers as well as of consumer awareness and wealth. The Japanese researchers’ discovery that mercury soaps were easily available positioned Africa as an unregulated region of the world. Recent South African studies confirm that mercury-containing cosmetics are more common there. And those investigations did not even include antiseptic soaps or homemade skin lightening concoctions sold in informal markets and shops most often patronized by poor immigrants from elsewhere in Africa. Whereas Japanese researchers were surprised by the very existence of mercury-containing toiletries, South African researchers overlooked the diversity of products sold in their own country.

Consumers rely on labels to make mercury visible. Cosmetic manufacturers, in turn, consistently conceal their inclusion of ammoniated mercury by not listing it. This concealment both resonates and contrasts with dynamics that Kristin Peterson (2014) has recently identified in Nigeria’s pharmaceutical industry. Like Nigerian drug markets, South Africa’s skin lightener markets are formed through regional, transnational, and global circuits of capital and commerce. Trade liberalization policies of the past thirty years have made these circuits increasingly difficult to track and regulate. Peterson found that drug manufacturers, to save on production costs, often include smaller amounts of active ingredients than they list on their labels.

At stake with mercury-containing cosmetics is not what is listed but what is left off. The concealment of mercury, when other banned ingredients frequently appear, suggests that skin lightener labels are directed at buyers rather than regulators. Companies are more fearful of discerning consumers than conscientious officials. Mercury’s concealment also illustrates how cosmetic manufacturers, who produce for highly competitive and de facto unregulated markets, are apt to multiply and combine active ingredients, allowing the naming of some to mask the presence of others.

Mercury’s resurgence in soaps and creams demonstrates how innumerable, personal acts contribute to the world’s toxicity. Chemical pollution occurs not only through manufacturing and mining or spectacular disasters like Minamata, Bhopal, and Chernobyl. It also spreads through everyday beauty practices. Highlighting those practices reveals the incredible reach of chemical infrastructures that distribute toxins across the globe, making them visible to some researchers and consumers while concealing them from others.


Lynn M. Thomas is a Professor in the Department of History and adjunct in Anthropology and Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle.  She is the author of Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya (2003), and co-editor of The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization (2008), and Love in Africa (2009). She has served as a co-editor of the Journal of African History. Currently, Thomas is completing a monograph on the history of skin lighteners that is centered in South Africa and looks out towards the United States and East Africa.



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Carson, Rachel. 1962. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. 2009. “Consuming Lightness: Segmented Markets and Global Capital in the Skin-Whitening Trade.” In Evelyn Nakano Glenn, ed., Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters, 166-87. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Hamann, Carsten R., Waranya Boonchai, Liping Wen, Emi Nishijima Sakanashi, Chia-Yu Chu, Kylin Hamann, Curtis P Hamann, Kumar Sinniah, and Dathan Hamann. 2014. “Spectrometric Analysis of Mercury Content in 549 Skin-Lightening Products: Is Mercury Toxicity a Hidden Global Health Hazard?” Journal of American Academy of Dermatology 70, 2: 281-6.

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Maneli, M. H., L. Wiesner, C. Tinguely, L. M. Davids, Z. Spengane, P. Smith, J. C. van Wyk, A. Jardine, and N. P. Khumalo. 2016. “Combinations of Potent Topical Steroids, Mercury and Hydroquinone are Common in Internationally Manufactured Skin-Lightening: A Spectroscopic Study.” Clinical and Experimental Dermatology 41: 196-201.

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Murphy, Michelle. 2013. “Chemical Infrastructures of the St Clair River.” In Soraya Boudia and Nathalie Jas, eds., Toxicants, Health and Regulation since 1945, 103-15. London: Pickering & Chatto.

Peterson, Kristin. 2014. Speculative Markets: Drug Circuits and Derivative Life in Nigeria. Durham: Duke University Press.

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Thomas, Lynn M. 2009. “Skin Lighteners in South Africa: Transnational Entanglements and Technologies of the Self.” In Evelyn Nakano Glenn, ed., Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters, 188-209. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Thomas, Lynn M. 2016. “Historicising Agency.” Gender & History 28, 2: 324-39.

Walker, Brett L. 2010. Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan. Seattle: University of Washington Press.


Cover image credit: Ncoza Dlova

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