SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — A 30-year-old Tulare County woman is behind bars months after state officials warned about tainted face creams.
The woman, Maria Estela Esparza Magallanes, is accused of selling face products containing dangerous levels of mercury on Facebook. They were smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico. Magallanes was arrested after an investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that involved an undercover agent buying the products from her.
“Cosmetics is a multi-billion dollar industry and everyone wants a piece of this pie,” said Cosmetic Surgeon Dr. Christine Lee.
Area doctors like Lee have seen it first hand, calling it an illegal crisis online. From cold creams to injectable products, access to the illegal market is everywhere.
“It’s so readily accessible, you saw it yourself, how easy it is to just go online and buy whatever you want,” said Dr. Lee.
There have been more than 60 poisonings linked to foreign-branded, unlabeled or homemade skin creams tainted with a less-toxic form of mercury. Dr. Lee says the products are still out there.
“They’re not legal, but you can buy them here in the US and have them shipped to you,” Dr. Lee said.
Magallanes reportedly told customers the illegal products could lighten skin color, remove age spots and treat acne.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Bettinelli said, “They had never been tested, no one had ever blessed her actions. She was profiting off a product that she knew she was not legally able to sell in the U.S.”
Bettinelli said one victim came forward to tip off the Department of Health about the products.
“She was using different product names, both ‘Crema Jimena,’ and ‘Crema Esparza,'” she said.
In September, a Sacramento woman, a mother of five, ended up in a coma after regularly using a tainted cream.
She knew it was altered from the original manufacturing in Mexico. Her case inspired the Department Of Health to launch a public outreach effort about the black market. “We were concerned about the traffic of mercury-laden skin creams,” said Bettinelli.
Officials say the products end up in the country through an informal network of suppliers that bring in the creams, usually through smuggling. They’re sold in swap meets or flea markets but mainly, online.
“If they were to come through proper channels they would be evaluated by the FDA. The claims she’s making on her website and on product labels, too,” said Bettinelli.
Dr. Lee says there is no enforcement and no current laws or regulation to stop the flow of products.
“There’s just no enforcement of the laws in this area, and it’s being totally ignored,” she said.
Magallanes faces up to 26 years in prison if convicted on the three charges she faces.