The instrument has been developed by the California Department of Public Health and uses a technique called total reflection x-ray fluorescence which can screen product samples for mercury content and identify the sources of mercury poisoning much quicker than before.
"In the U.S., the limit on mercury in products is 1 part per million," says Dr Gordon Vrdoljak of the California Department of Public Health, speaking at the 248th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
"In some of these creams, we've been finding levels as high as 210,000 parts per million -- really substantial amounts of mercury. If people are using the product quite regularly, their hands will exude it, it will get in their food, on their countertops, on the sheets their kids sleep on."
Mercury has been used in skin creams as it can lighten skin, as well as treating dark spots and even acne, however research has shown that the silvery liquid can cause a number of health problems.
As a result, the U.S. and many other countries have set low limits on or have banned mercury in consumer products.
The problem with the current method, according to Vrdoljak, is that it can take days to test properly.
“Using the new instrument, I can run through 20 or 30 samples in a day quite easily,” he explains. “By identifying those products that contain mercury, we can direct people to remove them and clean up their households."
Normally cream users start noticing hand shaking, headaches and other symptoms, so they then visit their doctors.
Through a urine test, they can find out whether they have high levels of mercury. In these cases, Vrdoljak says his team can step in.
They analyze dozens of bottles and containers from the patients' homes to root out the products that contain mercury. Their work has led to two product recalls earlier this year, but often, they find the cosmetics are homemade and come in unmarked containers.
"In the U.S., it's hard to gauge how much of these products are being used," Vrdoljak says. "But at least with this new technique, we can identify them much faster and help more people than before."