Amazon pulls skin-lightening creams from site after demands from Minnesota activists

A woman gives a stack of papers to another woman in front of a warehouse.
From left, Mary Blitzer of the Sierra Club gives a petition of over 23,000 signatures to Amira Adawe of the BeautyWell Project as they deliver it to the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Shakopee on Wednesday. The two nonprofit groups launched a campaign for Amazon and eBay to stop selling toxic skin-lightening creams that contain mercury.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

After pressure from Minnesota public-health and environmental activists, Amazon removed more than a dozen skin-lightening products with toxic levels of mercury off its website.

The move came after two organizations, the BeautyWell Project and the state branch of the Sierra Club, delivered a petition with over 23,000 signatures to the company’s fulfillment center in Shakopee on Wednesday.

On that same day, the groups also took out a full-page ad in the Star Tribune demanding Amazon to stop selling toxic skin-lightening creams. The ad had three words in bold print: “Dangerous, racist, and illegal.”

The ad states, “Amazon continues to sell skin-lightening creams that are toxic and promote racist beauty notions. Our tests measured unsafe levels of mercury in products purchased on Amazon, making them illegal according to federal law. None of the products we purchased list mercury on the label. Amazon, stop selling these products.”

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On Thursday, an Amazon spokesperson told MPR News in an email, “All Marketplace sellers must follow our selling guidelines and those who don’t will be subject to action, including potential removal of their account. The products in question are no longer available.”

The spokesperson also cited its policy prohibiting suppliers from selling unsafe cosmetics, including those that contain mercury.

Amira Adawe, founder of the BeautyWell Project, has been educating women on the dangers of creams intended to lighten their skin for about eight years. Her nonprofit’s entire focus is centered on eliminating the use of these products and empowering women.

Many of these creams contain mercury yet remain popular among some communities of color. She’s worked on this issue for years locally, but now she’s going after the retail giants.

“For a large retail company selling toxic products to individuals of color, I think it's so wrong. And these are illegal products,” she said.

She partnered with the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group, as well as the Mercury Policy Project to test the skin-lightening creams sold on the Amazon site. Out of the 24 that were tested, 15 had high levels of mercury.

Statements typed on a paper.
Statements about toxic skin-lightening creams are part of a petition of over 23,000 signatures that was delivered to the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Shakopee.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

The World Health Organization warns that mercury can have adverse effects on the nervous system and kidneys, and can cause pregnancy complications for women who use the products.

Aside from the clear public health concerns, “it's a racial thing that keeps encouraging that people should change their skin color, and we don't want to see that,” Adawe said.

According to Bloomberg, skin-lightening creams are a $20 billion industry. Predominantly, the consumers are women of color.

With centuries of colonialism, some women feel pressure to lighten their skin to align with Western standards of beauty. Research shows with lighter skin comes more societal benefits.

The creams have long been found in local ethnic stores, but now they've made their way online. Although the toxins in products are illegal, Mary Blitzer of the local Sierra Club branch said the products are not heavily regulated. She said many of them don't even include the harmful ingredients, but the unregulated landscape causes confusion among consumers.

She hopes with the extra support of the Sierra Club, Amazon continues to feel the pressure.

“The Sierra Club's role is how are we protecting community health, and we're really proud to partner with BeautyWell and follow their lead on this and just add our voice and bring our supporter's voice to the issue,” she said.

Adawe said she is still waiting to hear back from Amazon before the organizations claim a victory. As of Thursday evening, all but one of the 15 products appeared to be scrubbed from the site.

“Both BeautyWell and Sierra Club did not get any notification from Amazon indicating that they removed the products,” she said. “Unless we get in writing from them that they removed the products, we wouldn't know if it's really removed.”

She said the true test is if the products stay off Amazon’s site — for good.