The answer is maybe. But probably not.
According to John Bailey, chief scientist at the Personal Care Products Council, although most makeup manufacturers no longer use mercury in cosmetics, it is still added (legally) to some eye products as a germ-killer and preservative. While federal laws in the United States limit the concentration of mercury allowed in eye products, it is present in a few brands and varieties of mascara.
Recently, Minnesota became the first state in the nation to unequivocally ban the use of intentionally added mercury in cosmetics. Retailers who sell cosmetics containing mercury could face fines up to $700 while manufacturers that fail to disclose the presence of mercury on product labels could see fines as high as $10,000.
While the exposure that someone would get from a product used in small quantities like mascara would not in itself be enough to cause a problem, Sen. John Marty, who sponsored the ban, remains concerned. He said, "Mercury does cause neurological damage to people even in tiny quantities. Every source of mercury adds to it. We wanted to make sure it wasn`t here."
To put this legislation in perspective, it must be noted that the cosmetics ban is part of a larger ban on well-known sources of mercury like thermostats, barometers, industrial switches and various medical devices. The law also covers a variety of over the counter drugs, toiletries and fragrances.
While simply using mascara that contains mercury would be unlikely to cause any immediate health problems, mercury does accumulate in the body over time. Mercury can slow brain development in children and fetuses (who are unlikely to be using mascara) as well as cause neurological symptoms in adults. Remember the hatter from Alice in Wonderland? Hat makers of the day were exposed to high doses of mercury. This is not to say that your mascara will have you serving tea in the March Hare’s garden and reciting “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat,” but it is to say that there is reason to be aware. And if you use a lot of mascara often, why take even the smallest of risks?
In general, mercury is a good thing to avoid. But to be fair, there is little if any evidence to show that there is a legitimate health risk from the trace elements of mercury that may be present in mascara. According to multiple sources, there have been only two brands of mascara identified as having even trace amounts of mercury in them.
And you won’t see mercury on the label. Instead you will see thimerosal, which is 49% mercury and used as an anti-fungal and antiseptic additive in a variety of products including vaccines and tattoo ink.
Any research into this matter will show you that the debate is only getting started between the consumer watchdog groups and the cosmetic companies. Both sides have agendas and scientists to back up their claims. But under the banner of “better safe than sorry,” be on the lookout for thimerosal on the label and choose one of the many varieties of mascara that do not use this ingredient.
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