Responding to a Chicago Tribune investigation that found high levels of the toxic metal in some creams, the FDA said it has alerted its district offices about potentially hazardous products and will take enforcement action if necessary.
Allen said he could not provide specifics of the agency's investigation but that it might include testing samples and inspecting facilities.
The Tribune reported Wednesday that the newspaper had sent 50 creams used to lighten skin and fade age spots to a certified lab for testing, most of them bought in Chicago stores. Six were found to contain amounts of mercury banned by federal law. Of those, five had more than 6,000 parts per million of mercury — enough to potentially cause kidney damage over time, according to a medical expert.
The market for skin lighteners is booming in the U.S. and abroad. Many consumers use the creams to diminish age spots and freckles or to even out skin tone. Others want to lighten their entire face or bodies. Some people of Asian, Hispanic and African heritage use the creams because lighter skin can be considered a status symbol in their cultures.
Mercury is banned in skin-bleaching or lightening creams. The metal blocks production of melanin, which gives skin its pigmentation. But mercury can be rapidly absorbed through the skin and cause severe health effects, including neurological and kidney damage.
Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said she was troubled by the high amounts of mercury found by the Tribune. "It's highly appropriate that (the FDA) take action," she said.
Michael Bender, head of the Mercury Policy Project, a leading advocacy group based in Vermont, said the FDA should randomly test creams, including those sold online. He also called on the agency to alert local and state health departments as well as develop a fact sheet to be used by doctors and posted in stores.
"The word needs to get out," he said. "This is a serious risk."
The Tribune's tests were among only a handful ever conducted for the presence of mercury in skin creams. The FDA has rarely done such testing. Agency officials said the issue of tainted skin creams has not been on its radar since 2006, when some products from the Dominican Republic were found to contain high amounts of mercury. The FDA responded by issuing an import alert, which causes products to be detained until proven safe.
The six creams that tested high in the Tribune's investigation were manufactured in Lebanon, China, India, Pakistan and Taiwan. Four foreign manufacturers contacted by the newspaper said the tainted products sold under their names could be counterfeit.
Some sellers and suppliers wouldn't disclose where they bought the tainted creams. Others did, including Long Huynh, owner of a shop in Chinatown.
He said he bought the products online and would cooperate with the FDA's investigation. "We've worked with them before. It's not a problem at all."