A Tulare County woman was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of smuggling tainted skin creams into California and selling them on Facebook, promising the products could lighten skin color, remove age spots and treat acne, the California U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
The creams contained dangerous levels of mercury, authorities said.
Maria Estela Esparza Magallanes, 30, was arrested after an investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that involved an undercover agent buying products from the woman.
The 30-year-old is charged with selling adulterated and misbranded skin care products and smuggling the unapproved creams into the United States. She faces a statutory maximum sentence of 26 years in federal prison if convicted as charged.
Magallanes told the undercover agent that the creams were made from natural ingredients, including rose water, bee pollen and “stem cells,” according to the Department of Justice.
The woman also sold products to two other customers whom she met in parking lots in Tulare County, claiming the creams were mercury-free and that she had a license from California to sell them, the Attorney’s Office said.
But doctors found dangerous levels of mercury in the creams sold to one of the customers and to the agent. Testing also found the toxic chemical in another customer’s system, officials said.
The FDA said the levels of mercury were so high, that they could also be dangerous to people around the person who uses it, especially to babies who might rub up against their mothers and get it on their skin.
The chemical can also evaporate from the product and be inhaled by those who use it and people around them, an FDA doctor said in a news release.
Customers ordered the tainted creams through a Facebook page operated by Magallanes, and the products were often shipped to them through the U.S. Postal Service, authorities said.
The Facebook page was filled with what appeared to be testimonials from customers with before-and-after photos, according to the Attorney’s Office.
The products allegedly sold by Magallanes were marketed under the names “Crema Esparza” and “Crema Jimena” and found across Tulare and Kings counties.
Authorities have found tainted creams all over the state, including in Alameda, Orange, San Joaquin Kern, Sacramento, and Tulare counties.
A Mercury-tainted skin cream imported from Mexico left a Sacramento woman in a semi-comatose state after she used the Pond’s-labeled product. The woman’s illness marked the first reported case of mercury poisoning tied to skin cream in the U.S.
The California Department of Public Health asked customers to immediately stop using the creams, and get tested for mercury poisoning.
Symptoms of mercury poisoning include memory loss, irritability, depression, tremors, paresthesias, flushing, discoloration and hypertension, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s unclear how many people bought the tainted creams. Photos of contaminated products sold throughout California can be found here.
KTLA’s Kristina Bravo contributed to this report.