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Red lips don’t lie? Don’t be too sure
- study finds traces of chromium in lipsticks

New Delhi, Jan. 15: A non-government organisation has detected mercury in fairness creams and chromium in lipsticks in a sample-based survey that it says corroborates sporadic reports of potentially hazardous heavy metals in daily-use cosmetics sold across India.

The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said today it has found trace levels of mercury, a metal prohibited in cosmetics, in 14 among 32 fairness creams tested, while 15 among 30 lipsticks sampled were found to contain chromium.

The CSE said it did not find heavy metals in eight lip balms and three anti-ageing creams it sampled, but cautioned that the levels of mercury and chromium it found were high enough to warrant health concerns. Mercury has been linked to anxiety, depression, psychosis and kidney damage and chromium has been associated with skin and respiratory illnesses, including asthmatic bronchitis, among other health problems.

“Under Indian laws, mercury shouldn’t be present in cosmetics at all,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director at the CSE who led the team that conducted the survey. The cosmetics were analysed by the team at its pollution monitoring and chemicals analysis laboratory here.

The CSE said its findings suggest that regulatory oversight over India’s cosmetics industry is “extremely weak and ineffective”. The non-government agency has also cited a study by an independent business consultancy that predicts that cosmetics worth Rs 26,400 crore were sold in 2010 and the industry is expected to grow by 17 per cent between 2013 and 2015.

The survey has found mercury in 14 samples of fairness creams, the levels ranging from 0.01ppm (parts per million) to 1.97ppm. It said mercury levels in three creams were higher than 1ppm — the maximum limit set by US regulatory authorities.

The CSE said Aroma Magic Fair Lotion from Blossom Kochhar Beauty Products had 1.97ppm, Olay Natural White from Procter and Gamble had 1.79ppm, and Pond’s White Beauty from Hindustan Unilever had 1.36ppm.

The CSE’s analysis of the products has not been peer-reviewed or published in a research journal. But earlier sporadic surveys from India have reported heavy metals in cosmetics. A report from the Indian National Science Academy three years ago had cited research by the Delhi Pharmaceuticals Science and Research University that had revealed the presence of heavy metals in talcum powder, lipsticks and kaajal.

The CSE said chromium levels in the 15 lipsticks ranged from the highest level of 17ppm in a product called Hearts and Tarts to the lowest level of 0.45ppm in a product called Red Hot 43. India has not specified standards for chromium in cosmetics.

But, the CSE has claimed that the chromium levels in 13 of the 15 lipsticks it sampled would expose a heavy user — someone who applies lipstick three or more times a day — to greater than acceptable daily limits of this metal.

The CSE shared its findings with all 14 companies whose products were found to contain mercury or chromium. Only seven responded, the CSE said, adding that two of them backed their responses with “internal and third party safety assessments and testing” reports.

“The common theme in each of the responses we received was that these are only trace levels of metals and that they are not harmful,” Bhushan told The Telegraph.

A spokesperson for Hindustan Unilever told this newspaper that “like all Unilever cosmetic products, all Pond’s products, including Pond’s White Beauty, are safe — with no added mercury and manufactured in accordance with good manufacturing practices and in line with Bureau of Indian Standards and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) limits on trace metals.”

“All our products are approved by the FDA for manufacture and sale as safe cosmetics,” the spokesperson said, adding that they comply fully with guidelines in India and those of the US FDA in all aspects, including contaminants and heavy metals.

But a preliminary study of metal content in lip products from the US published last year had also suggested what scientists say are “potential public health concerns.” The study by a team of scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, had found that average daily use of 10 lip products would lead to chromium intakes exceeding its acceptable daily intake.

In the study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, Katharine Hammond, professor of environmental sciences at the UCB, and her colleagues had said metals in cosmetic products are “not currently regulated by the FDA,” and had urged that toxic metals in cosmetics should be regulated in the US just as in the European Union.