Comparison of XRF, TXRF, and ICP-MS Methods for Determination of Mercury in Face Creams


  • Gordon Vrdoljak State of California Department of Public Health, Food and Drug Laboratory Branch, Richmond, CA
  • Peter Palmer Deptartment of Chemistry & Biochemistry, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA
  • Richard Jacobs Currently retired, formerly with Division of Field Science, Food and Drug Administration, Alameda, CA
  • Bahman Moezzi State of California Department of Public Health, Food and Drug Laboratory Branch, Richmond, CA
  • Alanna Viegas State of California Department of Public Health, Food and Drug Laboratory Branch, Richmond, CA


mercury, face creams, XRF, TXRF, ICP-MS


Regulatory, media, and watchdog groups have identified numerous face cream products containing percent levels of mercury that far exceed the 1 ppm FDA regulatory limit. Mercury is added to these products to provide skin bleaching properties, and this poses a serious health risk to consumers. This study compares XRF, TXRF, and the more widely accepted ICP-MS methods for determination of mercury in face cream products. To identify contaminated products in a field setting, XRF is the preferred method, as it involves direct analysis of the sample, analysis times of a minute or less, and detection limits down to single ppm levels. XRF analysis gave quantitative results that compared well to those from ICP-MS for homogeneous products, but gave more variable results for products containing small crystals or chunks of inorganic mercury salts. More accurate results for these products requires preparation of a representative sample, microwave digestion, and TXRF or ICP-MS analysis. Given the continued production and distribution of mercury-containing face cream products, it is recommended that portable XRF be used to screen for such products or for accurate quantification of mercury in homogeneous products, and TXRF be used to determine the mercury content of more heterogeneous products.

Author Biography

Peter Palmer, Deptartment of Chemistry & Biochemistry, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA

Pete Palmer received a B.S. in Chemistry from Canisius Collegeand a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from Michigan State University. After graduation, he worked in the Corporate Research Division of Proctor & Gamble designing and developing laboratory robotics systems, and at NASA Ames Research Center where he led efforts to apply Mass Spectrometry to life support, atmospheric, and ecosystems monitoring applications. Pete is currently a Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at San Francisco State University (SFSU), Co-Director of SFSU’s Mass Spectrometry Facility, and Science Advisor for the FDA. His research interests focus on the development, characterization, and application of highly automated instrumentation for trace chemical analysis. Some of his applications to date include the development of Direct Sampling Mass Spectrometry and Solid Phase Microextraction GC/MS methods for life support and air quality monitoring, development of the first Proton Transfer Reaction Ion Trap Mass Spectrometer for monitoring volatile organic compounds in air, numerous case studies on the determination of pesticide contamination on Native American artifacts, and pioneering the use of X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometry for rapid screening of toxic elements in consumer products. Pete received the Jefferson Award in 2005 for community service in applying chemical analysis to serve the public interest.  


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2021-02-14 — Updated on 2021-02-14




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