The Cosmetic Industry Is Making People Pay A Dangerous Price For ‘Fair Skin’

By Tripti Nath:

A couple of years back when the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi-based not-for-profit research and advocacy organisation, had released a detailed report on the presence of heavy metals in some of the leading Indian and foreign cosmetic brands in the market, it had created quite a furor among people; naturally, an instant fear had gripped everyone: were the cosmetics they were using safe? And was longterm use of beauty products truly going to have as many adverse effects as the study suggested? As someone whose profession demands that she put on at least three layers of stage make-up, these questions had troubled noted Bharatnatyam exponent Geeta Chandran, too. She says, “Dancers like me need to use cosmetics when we perform but we do not know what goes into making them. While the report was quite unsettling it definitely served as a wake-up call.”

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 feel great. Yet, when it comes to the $950 million retail beauty and cosmetic industry in India, the alarming fact is that scant attention is paid to ensure adherence to established safety standards.

Photo by Patrick Riviere/Getty Images

Let’s go back to some of the findings of the landmark CSE report that serves as a warning for many. When the research organisation’s Pollution Monitoring Lab had tested 73 cosmetic products for heavy metals, it found that 32 fairness creams (26 for women and six for men) had the presence of mercury, while 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 nikhaar (glow)”, “luscious moisturised lips”. Deceptively, these companies invest a lot on endorsements and advertisements that promise to magically transform a user’s looks.

Significantly, the study also busted the myth that foreign brands are safer, as it found mercury in the range of 0.10 parts per million (ppm) to 1.97 ppm in 44% of the fairness creams produced abroad. Mercury lightens the skin by hindering the formation of skin pigment melanin, but as the report warned, 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 extremely toxic, then chromium is carcinogenic and nickel can cause allergies on coming in contact with the skin. Both these were found to be present in major lipstick brands. 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.

Although we do not like to acknowledge it openly, the reality is that Indians are obsessed with fair skin. 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 fairness creams to get that ‘flawless’ complexion and lips are tinted with crimson, scarlet and bright pink shades to make heads turn.

Clearly then, stringent regulations are 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% of fairness creams tested and found 40% 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, remarks, “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 practising dermatologist at the Maulana Azad Medical College in Delhi 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 is certainly useful for those who wear makeup on a daily basis. Chandran shares, “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 exceptional performer, whose glorious career spans over 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%, there is an urgent need to ensure that cosmetics sold in the country are safe. The country simply cannot afford a higher disease burden.