The newspaper sent 50 skin-lightening creams to a certified lab for testing, most of them bought in Chicago stores and a few ordered online. Six were found to contain amounts of mercury banned by federal law.
The Food and Drug Administration banned mercury in skin-bleaching or lightening products in 1990, but the agency rarely tests the products to see if consumers are at risk. The Chicago Tribune's tests — among only a handful ever conducted — show that tainted products are still readily available.
"I'm shocked and speechless," said Dr. Jonith Breadon, a Chicago dermatologist who said she sees patients weekly who ask about lightening their skin. "I just assumed since (mercury) was banned in the U.S., it never got in. But clearly that isn't true."
FDA spokesman Ira Allen said that with fewer than 500 inspectors reviewing imports, the agency cannot check all food, drug and cosmetic products under its jurisdiction. "It is likely that things get past us," he said.
When notified of the Chicago Tribune's test results, the retailers said they would pull the products from shelves, and two distributors said they would stop selling them.
The market for skin lighteners is booming in the U.S. and abroad. Some people of Asian, Hispanic and African heritage use the creams because lighter skin is often considered a status symbol in their cultures. Many consumers, including Caucasians, use the creams to diminish age spots or to even out skin tone, while others want to lighten their entire face or bodies.
Sales of lightening products in the U.S. are expected to increase nearly 18 percent by 2015, reaching $76 million annually, according to market researcher Global Industry Analysts.
Consumers can't know for sure which creams are tainted. Stores across the city sell dozens of brands, many of them made overseas. The six creams that tested high in the Chicago Tribune tests were manufactured in Lebanon, China, India, Pakistan and Taiwan.
The creams were bought at a variety of stores: a large beauty-supply store in the Uptown neighborhood, an herbal medicine shop in Chinatown, an Indian beauty salon on Devon Avenue, a grocery store also on Devon, and a small African shop on 79th Street.
Researchers say people are affected differently by mercury, depending on the amount and duration of exposure, among other variables. Daniel Hryhorczuk of the University of Illinois School of Public Health said the amounts of mercury found by the Chicago Tribune were troubling and could lead to kidney damage at the least.
"Those are very high levels," he said.
The highest level of mercury, nearly 30,000 parts per million, turned up in a circular container of thick, white cream labeled as Stillman's Skin Bleach Cream. Adbul Amin said he decided to stock it at his Devon Avenue grocery store because the product is so popular in Pakistan.
"I didn't have any idea it had mercury inside," Amin said, promising he would no longer sell the product.
Mercury is used in skin whiteners because the metal blocks production of melanin, which gives hair and skin their pigmentation. Other chemicals can do the same thing, but mercury is inexpensive and effective, said Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health science at Johns Hopkins University.
It's also toxic. Mercury is rapidly absorbed through the skin and can affect people neurologically, Silbergeld said. They might experience blurred vision or trouble walking. Severe mercury poisoning can shut down organs and lead to death.
Silbergeld said the use of mercury in skin creams has been well-documented in other countries and should be of concern to the FDA.
"In a multicultural society such as ours, you can expect that these kinds of issues are going to arise," she said. "The duty of the agency is to protect everyone."