Heavy metals in cosmetics: government silent on tightening rules

After Rajya Sabha MP raises concerns, health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad cites rules but says little about protecting consumers

Concerns over presence of heavy metals in cosmetic products in India persist even after the matter was raised in Rajya Sabha. The government has not given any commitment on saving consumers from these toxic cosmetic products.

A recent study by Delhi non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) had found heavy metals in cosmetic products. These heavy metals are sufficient to damage the health of consumers.

When Chandan Mitra, journalist and Rajya Sabha member from Bharatiya Janata Party raised the matter in Parliament on February 18, Union health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad cited the rules. He said that cosmetics containing mercury compounds are prohibited as per the Drugs and Cosmetics Rules of 1945 and so is the use of lead and arsenic compounds for the purpose of colouring cosmetics. CSE had found mercury in 44 per cent fairness creams.

The question then arises how mercury found its way into these products when it is banned. When CSE had sought clarification from the companies selling these fairness creams, most of them claimed that it was “trace” presence and unintended.

The industry responses said that heavy metals found were low in concentration and their presence was unavoidable because it is found in the ingredients used. “But the Indian regulations on cosmetics do not recognise such trace presence of mercury, thereby, making these products unlawful,” said Amit Khurana, project manager of food safety and toxins in CSE.

He said that the CSE study also highlighted that the limits are set only for few heavy metals—20 ppm for lead and 2 ppm for arsenic. The minister  mentioned this in his reply.

Khurana further pointed out this standard is set for colourants which comprise 10 per cent of the weight of a lipstick, and are only one of the raw material sources of heavy metals.

While presence of lead and arsenic is regulated through specified limits, there are no individual limits for several other heavy metals such as chromium and nickel in finished products, thereby, making monitoring difficult. CSE has found these metals in lipsticks.

Who will monitor?

“Given these facts, who will monitor these products to safeguard the interest of consumers in India?” asked Khurana.

When these concerns were raised in Rajya Sabha, Azad replied that  the respective state and Union Territory drugs control authorities grant licences for manufacture of cosmetics. These draw samples for testing of cosmetics and also take action as prescribed under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act of 1940.

But the existing regulations do not seem to be effective. CSE’s research suggests that there is a great degree of laxity in monitoring as 56 per cent of fairness creams tested were not found to contain mercury. It also suggested that the focus of certain state regulators has been on spurious products and not on quality testing.
After the study, CSE has written letters to policymakers and regulators on the need for regulatory reforms. Specifically, it has sought setting  standards for finished products, independent assessment system to approve products, strengthening of existing implementation framework to check compliance with law and a public disclosure and warning system.

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