Watch out: Fairness creams damage kidneys

The findings came to light after one of the researchers, Dr Sajeesh Sivadas from Kottakkal, Kerala, posted them on X.
Image used for representational purpose.
Image used for representational purpose.(Express Illustration)

BENGALURU: Fairness creams used by women can damage their kidneys due to high amounts of mercury in them, according to a study. “The increased use of fairness creams with high levels of mercury is contributing to the rise of Membranous Nephropathy (MN). This disorder results in the body excreting excessive protein in urine,” the study said.

Published recently in the Kidney International journal, researchers analysed 22 cases of MN reported between July 2021 and September 2023 in India. The findings came to light after one of the researchers, Dr Sajeesh Sivadas from Kottakkal, Kerala, posted them on X.

“Heavy metal estimation in blood or urine was done on 11 patients. Nine of them showed elevated mercury levels in blood, urine, or both. Those with normal mercury levels presented late after symptom onset, long after having stopped applying the creams. Two patients in the retrospective group, who were not using the creams, were not tested. One patient with markedly elevated serum mercury level showed a reduction in the level three months after stopping the cream,” the study said.

Dr Vidyashankar P, lead consultant, Nephrology, Aster CMI Hospital, said, “Regular use of certain fairness creams with elevated mercury levels can pose serious health hazards. Mercury can penetrate the skin and interfere with the kidney’s filtration process, leading to MN, with symptoms, including swelling in the legs, protein leakage in urine, and potentially elevated creatinine levels. In approximately 30% of the cases, this can advance to chronic kidney disease.”

The Minamata Convention on mercury has set an international legal limit of 1 ppm for mercury level, beyond which it can be harmful to skin, he said and added that it is advisable to avoid using fairness creams that surpass this threshold.

Dr Manjunath S, consultant, Nephrology, Fortis Hospital, defined MN as an autoimmune kidney disorder where mercury disrupts the immune system and attaches to the basement membrane in the kidney which prompts an immune reaction that harms the filters. This results in proteinuria (excessive protein in urine) and edema (swelling).

It is advisable to opt for mercury-free alternatives and consider checking the ingredients list for terms like “mercurous chloride” and “calomel,” which indicates the presence of mercury, Dr Manjunath said.

Determining the precise occurrence of MN caused by fairness creams is challenging. Various factors contribute to this condition, making it complex to pinpoint the influence of fairness creams in each instance. However, studies indicate a possible link, especially considering the widespread availability of mercury-containing fairness creams in India, he said.

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