International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: Minamata Convention highlights need to address mercury-containing products


As the world prepares to observe the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on March 21, the Minamata Convention on Mercury highlights the urgent need to address the harmful effects of skin-lightening mercury-containing products (SLPs).

Using cosmetics to lighten skin tone has deep historical roots, spanning centuries and cultures. Unfortunately, people with lighter skin color are still perceived as having a higher social status in many parts of the world today.

While some individuals use these products to address skin imperfections such as freckles and blemishes, many others use them to alter their skin color. However, consumers may not realize that these products often contain a cocktail of harmful chemicals, including mercury, which can lead to a myriad of health issues.

The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that mercury, a common ingredient in many skin-lightening products, poses serious health risks. Mercury exposure can result in kidney damage, neurological disorders, and other adverse health effects. Pregnant women, babies, and young children are particularly vulnerable to its harmful effects.

In a significant move to combat the use of mercury in cosmetics globally, the recent fifth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Minamata Convention on Mercury (COP-5) amended the Convention text to explicitly ban manufacture, import and export of mercury-added cosmetics. This amendment underscores the commitment of Parties to the Convention and many civil society groups to safeguarding human health and the environment from the dangers of mercury exposure.

“This new international requirement on cosmetics is an example of how we can proactively be anti-racists and contribute to addressing structural racism that is still prevailing in our societies. The work under the Minamata Convention and UNEP will not stop here, and we will now focus on supporting countries to put the new rule into practice”, says Monika Stankiewicz, Minamata Convention Executive Secretary and UNEP’s Alternate Anti-racism Advocate.

On the same occasion of COP-5, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) co-organized a special event questioning the normalization of skin-lightening practices and confronting the perpetuation of harmful cultural norms.

To further support these efforts, the GEF-funded, UNEP-led project “Eliminating Mercury Skin Lightening Products” is working towards the eradication of mercury-containing skin-lightening products. This initiative supports government legislation to ban mercury-added products in line with the Minamata Convention, strengthens national capacities, and raises awareness of the risks associated with these products. This project is carried out by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Biodiversity Research Institute, in collaboration with the Governments of Gabon, Jamaica, and Sri Lanka, aiming to protect vulnerable populations from the adverse effects of mercury exposure.

Through this project, the UNEP Global Mercury Partnership Secretariat invites all relevant stakeholders and experts to express their interest in joining the community of practice to eliminate mercury-containing skin-lightening products. By fostering a community of practice, the project seeks to multiply its impact and promote information and knowledge exchange on this critical issue.