Creams and ointments containing mercury compounds were used for centuries to treat a wide variety of skin complaints including syphilis, impetigo, acne and warts. Dermatologists of the nineteenth century also employed it as a lightening agent to treat pigmentation problems such as ‘liver spots’, so it comes as no surprise that many nineteenth century cosmetics and patent medicines also contained forms of mercury. For example, Harriet Hubbard Ayer’s Recamier Cream’s ‘beneficial’ effects on the complexion were due to mercury (Albert, 2000, p. 522).
See also: Recamier Manufacturing Company.
Despite numerous warnings of their dangers, the use of mercury compounds such as bichloride of mercury (corrosive sublimate) and ammoniated mercury continued well into the twentieth century. A number of cosmetics, such as freckle removers, relied on it to “improve and beautify the complexion”.
Freckle Milk (Lait Antéphelique). Camphor 1¾ oz. Ammonium chloride ¾ oz. Corrosive sublimate 150 grains Albumen 3½ oz. Rose water 2 lb.
We call attention to the fact that the sublimate (bichloride of mercury) is very poisonous and must be used with the greatest care.
See also Freckle Removers.
In sunny countries like Australia, face creams that helped remove pigmentation defects and lighten the skin were very popular. One of the more common products of this type was Dearborn’s Mercolized Wax. The name ‘Mercolized Wax’, was not a chemical term but rather a trademark taken out by the Dearborn Supply Company in 1911.
Dearborn made and distributed Mercolized Wax in a number of countries during the first half on the twentieth century and advertised its benefits and uses accordingly. It was suggested that the wax should be applied at night and washed off in the morning as well as a light film in the morning as a powder base.
Instead of greasy face creams use Mercolized Wax and watch the rapid and permanent improvement in your complexion. Creams mask blemishes; Mercolized Wax removes them. Mercolized Wax stimulates the pores to natural action, absorbs and takes away every particle of waste matter. It leaves the skin exquisitely smooth and fine, reveals its natural beauty. Every night, every morning, use Mercolized Wax this way.
Night and morning, cleanse the skin with warm, not hot, water, and a good soap. Pilenta is best because it is free from excess alkali. It soothes; comforts.
Then pat it
Use a soft huckaback towel, not to rub the skin this way and that, stretching it in all directions, but to pat it until superfluous moisture is removed.
Now apply Mercolized Wax. Do not merely smear the face with it. With fingertips pat the Wax smoothly and evenly over the face, neck, and beneath the chin.
Finally, massage gently, using circular upward and outward movements. This Wonderful Wax will absorb and thus remove impurities, which, if neglected, choke the pores.
Mercolized Wax is guaranteed not to contain any form of mercury and does not encourage hair growth.
As well as Mercolized Wax, Dearborn made a number of cosmetic products most of which are now largely forgotten including:
Stallax granules (Hair shampoo)
Silmerine (Hair Waving Fluid)
Barri-agar (Orange-blossum face powder)
Sulphix (For correcting nose shine)
Stymol (For removing blackheads)
Pheminol (Hair Remover)
Saxolite (Astringent/Wrinkle remover)
Although the product was advertised as “guaranteed not to contain any form of mercury and does not encourage hair growth” it did contain mercury. Mercolised Wax was analysed by the Kansas State Board of Health and some years later by the New Haven Department of Health. They both found that it contained:
Ammoniated mercury 10 per cent.
Zinc oxide 10 per cent.
Ointment base (petrolatum and paraffin).
These reports make the mercury content of the product on the high side, so, it is little wonder that the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1912 reported that the “stuff is a caustic poison and in the interest of the public safety the law should require that it be labeled as such” (AMA, 1912, p. 603).
Some constraints were placed on mercury compounds in the late 1930s. In 1939, the American Food and Drug Authority (FDA) declared that they considered ammoniated mercury to be a drug but allowed products to contain 5% or less of ammoniated mercury if they included conspicuous warnings on the packaging that stating that if skin irritation appeared the use of the product should be discontinued.
In 1939, U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ordered the Dearborn Supply Company to stop representing that Mercolized Wax absorbs surface skin, surface discolorations, or removes coarseness, blackheads, freckles or sunburn or softens the skin and to reveal that Mercolized Wax contains ammoniated mercury. Failure to do this led the FTC to take the company to court in 1944 because its advertisements failed to “reveal the harmful consequences that may result from indiscriminate use of ‘Mercolized Wax,’ a cosmetic preparation containing ammoniated mercury” (Kesaris, 1985). Presumably the delay between the warning and the court action was in part a result of the outbreak of war.
These minor constraints meant that skin lightening cosmetics containing mercury compounds continued to be made late into the twentieth century despite the known dangers. Writing in Soaps, Perfumes & Cosmetics, A. J. Lehman (a representative of the FDA) noted that:
Mercury compounds have been used in cosmetics since antiquity. However, they cannot be regarded as innocuous. Actually mercury and its compounds are extremely toxic. There is little or no margin of safety between effective and toxic levels. Sensitization to mercury compounds is not uncommon.
The principle application of mercury is in the form of ammoniated mercury used in bleaching creams. The action of mercury is to arrest DOPA, an enzyme, dihydroxy-phenyl analine, which is essential in the process of conversion of tyrosine to melamine in the skin. We have regarded such articles in the category of drugs for self-medication that should conform to the following restrictions:
1. Ammoniated mercury preparations should not exceed 5 per cent concentration.
2. Mercuric bichloride and other mercurials must not exceed 0.2 per cent concentration.
3. “Use” to be immediately discontinued if irritation develops.
4. Not to be used on damaged skin, such as shaving “nicks” or after a depilatory.
5. There should be a preliminary test for sensitization to mercury.
6. Preparations are not to be used on children below twelve years of age.
As late as 1972, even though Balsam and Sagarin described ammoniated mercury as a poison when ingested and noted that it needed to be treated with care, they still included a number of skin lightening formulae that used it.
Part A Carolate 15.00% Ceraphyl 28 31.00% Ceraphyl 140A 20.00% Cosmetic liquid 585 10.00% Ozokertite 95° 5.00% Beeswax 5.00% Ceraphyl 424 5.00% Butyl paraben 0.20% Part B Zinc oxide 5.00% Bismuth subnitrate 0.25% Ammoniated mercury 3.00% Perfume 0.55%
Procedure: Melt the components of Part A together, heating to 126 to 128°F. Do not exceed a temperature of 130°F. With stirring, add B. Cool to 110°F, and add perfume. Pass the mixture through a colloid mill into a stainless steel holding tank.
By the 1970s, the action of mercury compounds on skin pigmentation had been ascertained. In addition to reducing melanin formation by inhibiting the enzyme tyrosinase, some mercury salts, including mercuric chloride and ammoniated mercury, were also shown to have an exfoliating effect on the epidermis due to the generation of hydrochloric acid when the mercury salts reacted with the skin. If enough acid was produced to generate this ‘sloughing effect’, the exfoliation would add to the lightening process.
During the 1970s, restrictions or prohibitions were placed on the use of mercury compounds in the UK, the USA , the EU and elsewhere. By the 1980s, Harry’s Cosmeticology noted that:
In a modern context, ammoniated mercury can scarcely be considered to be a suitable material for use in a cosmetic product which will be applied regularly, day by day, despite its existence in pharmacopoeial formulae.
However, despite the fact that the use of mercury in cosmetics is now prohibited in the United States, Europe, Australasia and elsewhere, cosmetics containing mercury compounds still make regular appearances in the reports of public health agencies in these countries. Skin lightening products are still made and used in Africa, South America and Asia and these products are mail ordered or carried in luggage into the developed world – even though their importation and use is prohibited. Low income groups with pigmented skins are particularly susceptible to using these banned skin lightening cosmetics. They are potentially more serious as they are often applied over the whole of the body and not just the face, which increases the amount of mercury absorbed.
Updated: 10th February 2015
Albert, M. R. (2000). Nineteenth-century patent medicines for the skin and hair. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 43, 519-526.
American Medical Association (1912). Nostrums and quackery (2nd ed.). Chicago: American Medical Associated Press.
Askinson, G. W. (1923). Perfumes and cosmetics: Their preparation and manufacture (5th ed.). London: Crosby Lockwood and Son.
Harry, R. G. (1955). Modern cosmeticology. (4th ed.). London: Leonard Hill.
Kesaris, P. (Ed.). (1985). Records of the Federal Trade Commission. University Bethesda: Publications of America.
Lehman, A. J. (1960). Drugs in cosmetics: Should they mix? Soaps, Perfumes and Cosmetics. April.
Sagarin, E., & Balsam, M. S. (Eds.). (1972). Cosmetics: Science and technology (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley-Interscience.
Wilkinson J. B., & Moore, R. J. (Eds.). (1982). Harry’s cosmetology (7th ed.). New York: Chemical Publishing.