In a quiet corner of Kerala, where the desire for fair skin is deeply rooted in the culture, a startling medical mystery has emerged, shedding light on the dark side of beauty standards.
In recent months, an unusual influx of patients with a rare form of kidney disorder, known as Membranous Nephropathy (MN), has sent shockwaves through the medical community.
Their common link? The use of fairness or skin-lightening creams laden with heavy metals, like mercury.
Multiple cases with similarities
It all began with the case of a 14-year-old girl, who arrived at Aster MIMS in Kottakkal, with MN syndrome. Her condition, marked by excessive protein in urine, was perplexing, however, what truly alarmed doctors was the presence of NELL1 protein — making it the rare kidney disorder MN, typically associated with underlying malignancies, autoimmune disease, or medication-induced reactions.
It was then learnt that the young girl had been using a fairness cream — the only notable change in her routine. As the medical team delved deeper into the matter, they discovered more such cases. Another family member with kidney issues had also been using a similar cream.
Then came to light the case of a 29-year-old man, who was preparing for his wedding. He came with the same problem and also confessed to using a fairness cream for two months.
This prompted the need for a detailed probe into these cases by Dr Sajeesh Sivadas and Dr Ranjit Narayanan, nephrologists at MIMS Aster. The test results of eight such patients were alarming.
The doctors told the media that the levels of mercury and lead in these patients’ bodies were over 100 times higher than permissible limits. Some even exhibited traces of cadmium, cobalt, and chromium.
Dr Sundar Sankaran, renowned nephrologist and Programme Director of Aster Institute of Renal Transplantation in Bengaluru, stresses to South First that the above-mentioned heavy metals are notorious for their toxicity and the potential harm they cause to vital organs.
What is MN syndrome?
Membranous nephropathy is a kidney condition where the kidneys’ filters get damaged, causing proteins to leak into the urine.
This can be caused by various factors, including some beauty products. When certain harmful ingredients in beauty products, like mercury, are absorbed into the system, they can harm the kidneys and lead to conditions like MN.
“In simple terms, using some beauty products with harmful ingredients can damage our kidneys, causing them to leak essential proteins into our urine,” explains Dr Sankaran.
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can harm the nervous system, kidneys, and other organs.
Why do fairness creams have mercury?
Fairness creams, widely popular in various regions, have garnered scrutiny due to the potential health risks they pose. One of the lesser-known yet significant concerns emerging from certain fairness creams is the potential to cause kidney problems.
Dr Girish MS, a renowned dermatologist from Basavanagudi who practices in Bengaluru and in Kerala, tells South First, “Many fairness creams, particularly those that aren’t rigorously tested or approved by recognised regulatory bodies, have been found to contain inorganic mercury. This metal can be absorbed into the bloodstream when applied topically.”
He says that with prolonged use, mercury can accumulate in the body, leading to mercury poisoning. The kidneys, responsible for detoxifying and filtering out harmful substances, become particularly vulnerable.
Continuous exposure to mercury can lead to kidney stress, impairing their function and, in severe cases, causing renal failure.
While the presence of mercury in these creams is not unheard of as it is known to be a rapid skin lightening compound, there is a set permissible level approved by regulatory bodies. Non-adherence to this can cause kidney damage with prolonged use.
Meanwhile, some of the fairness creams also include steroids, which are used to achieve faster and more prominent skin lightening.
While steroids can effectively reduce inflammation and suppress melanin production, their systemic absorption can have harmful effects. It can affect multiple organs, including the kidneys, with prolonged exposure.
‘No’ to unapproved fairness creams
Citing an example of how badly unapproved creams can damage the kidneys, Dr Sankaran tells us about a book — My Race Against Death — written by one of his patients who had a kidney transplant about 27 years ago.
In the book, the author says that her treatment for vitiligo with native medicine could have been the cause for her kidney failure. She writes about the dangers of skin creams and medications that causes not only kidney damage, but also cancers.
Dr Sankaran says that consuming “herbs” as medicine or using high-mercury-content fairness creams can be highly dangerous for the kidneys.
“Mercury is known to be used for lightening skin tone in fairness creams for a long time. We nephrologists have been taught about the dangers of mercury causing nephropathy or kidney damage,” he adds.
Dr Sankaran explains that many heavy metals, including gold, are known to cause nephropathy. He adds that native medicines used for the treatment of vitiligo and other skin conditions caused kidney damage nearly 30 years ago.
Meanwhile, cautioning people against the use of any random fairness creams, Dr Abhiram Rayapati, Dermatologist and Dermatosurgeon from iSkin Clinic in Bengaluru, says, “This has been happening in several cities. I have also seen a case from Mumbai where a family of three developed glomerulonephritis, a condition in which the tiny filters in the kidney get damaged. When doctors searched for the possible cause, they found that it was the make-up kit they were using.”
It contained mercury levels in the thousands, while the permissible limit is under 1 PPM (parts per million).
Why is mercury so high in fairness creams?
Despite the fact that the use of mercury in fairness creams is both unethical and dangerous, several unscrupulous manufacturers use high levels of mercury.
The reason for this, Dr Girish says, is due to the fact that mercury can suppress the production of melanin in the skin, the pigment that is responsible for colour.
By inhibiting melanin, mercury can make the skin appear lighter. Also, mercury’s skin-lightening effects can be rapid, giving users the impression of immediate results.
“Unfortunately, several well-known products that are there in the markets also use high levels of mercury in them. This can make these products more appealing to consumers seeking quick changes in their skin tone,” Dr Girish adds.
Also, mercury is a relatively inexpensive ingredient compared to other skin-lightening ingredients, hence making it attractive for manufacturers who prioritise profits over safety.
How do these products enter the skin?
Dr Girish says that many of his patients ask him how skin products can lead to kidney damage. “‘We don’t consume it internally, then how does it cause any ailment,’ they ask. Skin isn’t like an impenetrable wall; it has tiny openings and can let some things through,” he explains.
“The ability of a substance to get in depends on its size, what it is made of, and how long does it stays on your skin. Some products, like those with toxic elements like mercury, can be extremely harmful.”
He adds, “It therefore becomes more important to use safe and trusted skincare products, especially after consulting a dermatologist, and knowing what exactly to look on the labels of these creams. Unfortunately, many in the market will not even provide this.”
Dr Girish says that the state drug control department even did a mass raid called “Operation Soundarya” where they went after all the fake and unapproved cosmetic brands.
But these are all temporary. Doctors say that now, the desire for Korean glass skin amongst youngsters especially has led to a rise in several spurious skin-lightening creams, face lotions, soaps, shampoos. “It is absolutely important to not purchase these kinds of spurious products,” warn doctors.