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Mirror, Mirror… the ugly face of the beauty business in India

Mar 04, 2014

Regulatory loopholes result in high quantities of banned metals finding their way into cosmetic products, writes Tripti Nath.

Beauty Products

New Delhi: The recent report of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi-based not-for-profit research and advocacy organisation, on the presence of heavy metals in some of the leading Indian and foreign cosmetic brands in the market, has come as a cause of concern for noted Bharatnatyam exponent Geeta Chandran. After all, her profession demands that she put on at least three layers of make-up when she performs on stage. Like her, there are several dancers, actors, anchors and models, for whom wearing makeup is a professional necessity. One cannot also forget all those women and men, who rely on expensive cosmetics and fairness creams to look good and feel great. Yet, scant attention is paid to ensure adherence to established safety standards when it comes to the $ 950 million retail beauty and cosmetic industry in India.

Here’s why the released recently CSE report is so disturbing. When the research organisation’s Pollution Monitoring Lab tested 73 cosmetic products for heavy metals, it was found that 32 fairness creams (26 for women and six for men) had the presence of mercury, 30 lipsticks, eight lip balms, three anti-ageing creams and a few herbal products carried traces of lead, cadmium, chromium and nickel. The results pointed to the several health hazards they posed, some serious enough to put anyone off the wide range of attractively-packaged cosmetic products on offer today that promise “white beauty”, “perfect nikhar (glow)”, “luscious moisturised lips”. These companies invest a lot on celebrity endorsements with promises of to transform the user’s looks magically.

The study, which also busts the myth that foreign brands are safer, found mercury in the range of 0.10 parts per million (ppm) to 1.97 ppm in 44 per cent of the fairness creams. CSE experts believe that the potential harm these metal-laced creams can cause can be gauged by comparing their mercury content with the ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) limit for the metal. “Since India has not set the ADI limit for mercury, CSE compared the amount of mercury in fairness creams with the ADI set by the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA),” states the study. The ADI is the maximum amount of toxin a person can be exposed to without any appreciable health risk. Almost half of the tested creams contained the toxic heavy metal in excess of 1 ppm, which is the maximum limit applicable in the US. Incidentally, barring in eye care products, the use of mercury in cosmetics is prohibited in India.

Mercury lightens the skin by hindering the formation of skin pigment melanin, but the report warns that inorganic mercury present in fairness creams can damage the kidneys and cause skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring, besides leading to anxiety, depression, psychosis and peripheral neuropathy. According to Sunita Narain, CSE’s director general, “Mercury is not supposed to be present in cosmetic products. Its mere presence in these products is completely illegal.”

If mercury is known to be extremely toxic, then chromium is carcinogenic and nickel can cause allergies on coming in contact with the skin. Of the 30 lipstick brands tested by CSE, chromium was found in 15, in the range of 0.45 ppm to 17.83 ppm.  Likewise, nickel was detected in the range of 0.57 to 9.18 ppm, in 13 out of 30 products. And although India has banned the use of nickel sulphate, nickel carbonate and nickel monoxide in cosmetics, this obviously has not prevented their use. Moreover, while chromium oxide and chromium hydroxide are being used as cosmetic colourants in the US and have, in fact, been prohibited in lipsticks, there is no such exception in India and no standards to limit their use.

Clearly, these are very alarming figures, considering that Indians are obsessed with fair skins. Matrimonial columns in newspapers are dominated by suffocating expectations of “beautiful, fair and lovely” brides and celebrities endorse creams that promise to make men look fair and handsome. Students, professionals and housewives – nobody wants to be called a plain Jane. To look hip and confident, enough money and time is spent in massaging fairness creams to get that flawless complexion and lips are tinted with crimson, scarlet and bight pink shades to make heads turn.

Stringent regulations are, undoubtedly, the only way to ensure safety. Nonetheless, CSE experts point out that regulatory loopholes result in high quantities of banned metals finding their way into cosmetic products. Since Indian regulators do not acknowledge the concept of ‘trace’, there is no maximum limit set for metals in finished products. ‘Trace presence’ of heavy metals is recognised by both the United States and the European Union.

As per the CSE, seven out of 14 cosmetic companies have taken refuge in the concept of ‘trace presence’ of metals, saying that the heavy metal found is small in quantity and is an indispensable ingredient. But the CSE disagrees with this defence, as its laboratory did not detect mercury in 56 per cent of fairness creams tested and found 40 per cent of lipsticks chromium or nickel free.

Dr Rashmi Sarkar, Honorary Secretary of the Indian Association of Dermatologists, Venerologist and Leprologist (IADVL), who has closely observed usage patterns over the years, says, “The growing desire of people to look youthful and, in particular, fair, in India, has led to a phenomenal increase in the use of cosmetics.” As a practicing dermatologist at the Maulana Azad Medical College she knows the kind of problems regular use of cosmetics can lead to, “The major conditions I have seen are contact dermatitis (an inflammation of the skin), irritant dermatitis and depigmentation arising from certain ingredients in cosmetics that may trigger allergy. It could be either due to the base used or the colouring agents.” Sarkar recommends a moderate use of cosmetics and a cautious look at the findings of the CSE report.

This advice can certainly come in handy for those who wear makeup on a daily basis. Remarks Chandran, “Dancers like me need to use cosmetics when we perform but we do not know what goes into making them. The CSE report is certainly quite unsettling. At the same time, I am glad that I got some useful advice on removing makeup quite early in my career. It is important to take it off properly. The skin needs to breathe and rejuvenate.”

Away from the stage, this Delhi-based performer, whose glorious career spans around 35 years, relies on time-tested natural ingredients like papaya, banana, milk, gram flour and mustard oil for her daily skin care needs.

Like Chandran, Kathak danseuse Shovana Narayan has been mesmerising audiences for several decades now and gives at least a dozen performances every month. She says, “The presence of toxic metals in cosmetics is alarming. The fact is that dancers put a triple layer of make-up and anything unnatural is bound to affect the skin sooner or later. But we have to use make-up and so I go for the medicated brands.”

While projections for India’s cosmetic industry appear bright with an annual growth pegged at 17 per cent between 2013 and 2015, there is an urgent need to ensure that cosmetics sold in the country are safe. India cannot afford a higher disease burden for the sake of vanity.

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