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Dangers of skin-lightening creams could be highlighted by grant program

Eurocentric beauty standards that claim fair skin is more desirable than dark skin are not only wrong, but dangerous.

“Women are using creams filled with mercury and other toxins … so they can have fairer skin,” Rep. Hodan Hassan (DFL-Mpls) told the House Health Finance and Policy Committee Monday. “They are endangering their health and their children’s health.”

She sponsors HF1419, which would create and fund a grant program through the Department of Health to increase public awareness on the dangers of these products.

It was amended and held over for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill. The appropriation amount has not been determined.

A companion, SF1455, is sponsored by Sen. Sandra Pappas (DFL-St. Paul) and awaits action by the Senate Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee.

The problem impacts people across communities of color – including African, Indian, East Asian, and Latin American populations as well as the African American community – making the issue a question of racial and gender equity, Hassan said.

“It’s a huge public health issue, a huge maternal-child health issue, that’s predominately impacting women of color,” said Amira Adawe, director of the Beautywell Project.

The nonprofit organization received grant funding through a similar state appropriation in 2019.

This allowed the Beautywell Project to expand its outreach in Greater Minnesota; spread information across a wider range of platforms, including videos and podcasts; and establish new programming, like the Young Women’s Wellness and Leadership Initiative, which provides 16-week-long training programs for high school girls, providing them with education and advocacy skills.

It also tested more than 500 products containing high levels of mercury, some of which were considered “extremely toxic,” and launched a campaign that resulted in Amazon removing 15 mercury-containing products from its online platform, Adawe said.

The sale of cosmetic products containing mercury is illegal in Minnesota, but they are still available through online retailers and in some stores, she said.

Mercury can impact the nervous system, damage kidneys, and cause pain, rashes, skin discoloration, and scarring. Pregnant and breastfeeding women using these products can also expose their children, causing neurological damage and impacting brain development, Adawe said.

Many women use multiple products, sometimes two to three times a day, increasing their exposure to a range of dangerous metals and chemicals including mercury, steroids, and hydroquinone – which can cause cancer, skin irritation and inflammation, extreme sensitivity to sunlight, and discoloration, Adawe said.

“They’re getting exposed to so much chemicals and many of them don’t understand ... how it’s impacting their health,” she said.

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