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1 in 6 Indian Households Report Allergic Reactions, Ailments Due to Cosmetics

Unsafe cosmetic products are in rampant use in Indian households due to their wide availability online as well as in physical stores. A survey shows that consumers are highly vulnerable to cosmetics that do not meet quality standards, as one in six households have family members who experienced an allergic reaction or severe ailment due to these products in the last three years.

Not only this, one in 10 households have a family member suffering from a serious ailment due to unsafe cosmetics and one in four had some or the other issue with these products in the last three years, as per the survey conducted by community social media platform LocalCircles.

Only recently, multinational giant Unilever recalled several of its dry shampoo brands including Dove and Tresemme in October after they were found to be contaminated with a cancerous chemical called benzene, as per information posted on the website of the US Food and Drug Administration. The withdrawn aerosols, which were all manufactured before October 2021, were reported to have cancer-causing benzene that comes from the propellants used to spray the product from the can.

The same products are sold via Hindustan Unilever in India. But this is not the first instance of Indian consumers using cosmetics that do not meet quality standards either due to the fault of the original manufacturer or fake and expired products, which are freely sold in the market.

In one of the biggest raids, the Mumbai crime branch raided five godowns of beauty care products on September 27 and seized large quantities of expired cosmetics even as employees were altering the expiry date labels. In another such raid in the same month, the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO) seized illegal cosmetics estimated to be worth Rs 4 crore.

In February 2021, the Mumbai crime branch arrested five people for selling fake ‘Lakme’ products, a brand originally belonging to Hindustan Unilever Limited. The crime branch also raided five stores in Malad and seized fake cosmetic products worth Rs 24 lakh.

Indians love their skincare

The survey’s results showed that Indians love their cosmetics – be it for skincare, hair care, or personal care. Many also rely on beauty treatments or therapies using varied products of herbal and natural origin.

India has a booming market for cosmetics, with giants like Reliance and Tata also planning to retail multibrand beauty products online. Several eCommerce companies, such as Nykaa and Myntra, have already established their presence in this segment.

In 2020, India’s cosmetics industry was valued at about $20 billion, fuelled by online and offline sales, as per database company Statista. Unfortunately, due to lack of proper regulations, many cosmetic products, especially those promising to alter natural appearance, often contain ingredients ill-advised for human use.

The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in a report based on results after testing 32 fairness creams, 30 lipsticks, some lip balms and anti-aging creams stated that over 40 percent of fairness creams use mercury, which is banned for use in such formulations.

Similarly, 60 percent of the lipsticks tested had some or other heavy metal, including chromium and nickel. The CSE report stated that while it is possible to eliminate these toxins from lipsticks, the industry is not doing so and the central government has failed to regulate compliance.

The think tank stated that the current regulation in India on the use of toxins in cosmetics is “very poor”. Its implementation is even poorer as the regulators are not checking ingredients or the final product. But it is a fact that in 50 percent of the cosmetic samples tested in India, no heavy metals or mercury was found.

What is the law?

The survey asked questions related to cosmetic products bought in the last three years that may have turned out to be fake or counterfeit.

In India, the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, regulates the import, manufacture, distribution and sale of drugs and cosmetics. Industry experts argue that the present legislation is completely obsolete as it does not address issues related to online sale of medicines or cosmetics. As a result, there is rampant growth in the sale of illegal cosmetics.

On the basis of the recommendations of an eight-member panel headed by the Drug Controller General of India to frame new laws for medicines, cosmetics and medical devices, the Centre notified new cosmetic rules in 2020. These mandate sharing all information about the manufacturer and the country where the product was made, ingredients used, directions for safe use, among other details, to be placed in the label to enable consumers to make an informed choice.

The government also decided to set up the first Central Cosmetic Laboratory and appoint inspectors across states.

According to the new rules, the expert panel will strive to keep up with changes in the pharmaceutical market and monitor new retail avenues and regulatory demands that have emerged in recent years.

The industry lobby said the committee must have representatives from other stakeholders such as manufacturers, doctors, academia, scientists and consumers of patient bodies. Despite the forward movement by the government in cosmetics regulation, there are few instances of a crackdown on makers of spurious cosmetics.

The new rules clearly state ingredients that can or cannot be used in cosmetic products. Under the ‘Classification of Cosmetic Raw Materials and Adjuncts’ issued by the Bureau of India Standards (BIS), the ingredients are classified into two categories: Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) and Generally Not Recognized as Safe (GNRAS).

The GRAS class includes a list of dyes, colours and pigments allowed in cosmetics. The new BIS classification prohibits manufacture or import of cosmetics that contain dyes, colours and pigments not specified by it. In case of other ingredients, the BIS usually considers them to be part of the GRAS class.

According to a report titled, ‘The state of counterfeiting in India 2021’, cosmetic products are among the most counterfeited products in India’s FMCG sector. These products contain lower quality or potentially harmful ingredients.

A health hazard?

When the survey asked about issues faced in using these cosmetics, 15 percent households responded saying they had family members who had an allergic reaction or a severe ailment from cosmetics they purchased in the last three years.

The menace of counterfeit and fake products is growing as the Indian beauty eCommerce market expands rapidly and attracts large investments. But the ‘Constitution of Committee for Framing of New Drugs, Cosmetics and Medical Devices Act’ hopes to bring regulation and innovation to the industry.

It is, however, of utmost importance to have an inclusive framework with medical experts and consumer representatives to understand the challenges and long-term health implications of using unsafe cosmetics.

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