Skin whitening creams, lipsticks contain dangerous metals: CSE

Mercury was found in 14 out of 32 so-called fairness creams tested by the pollution monitoring laboratory of CSE


Indian laws prohibit use of the metal in all cosmetic products in the country. Photo: Hindustan Times
Indian laws prohibit use of the metal in all cosmetic products in the country. Photo: Hindustan Times

New Delhi: Skin whitening creams and lipstick sold in India contain high levels of dangerous metals such as mercury and chromium, according to laboratory tests conducted by a non-profit organization.

Mercury, which can damage kidneys, cause rashes, scarring, anxiety, depression and psychosis, was found in 14 out of 32 so-called fairness creams tested by the pollution monitoring laboratory of Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), with levels ranging from 0.1 parts per million (ppm) to 1.97 ppm.

Indian laws prohibit use of the metal in all cosmetic products in the country.

“Aroma Magic Fair Lotion, a product of Blossom Kochhar Beauty Products Pvt. Ltd, had the highest mercury level at 1.97 ppm, followed by Olay Natural White (1.79 ppm), a product of Procter and Gamble Hygiene & Healthcare Ltd, and Ponds White Beauty (1.36 ppm) of Hindustan Unilever Ltd,” CSE said in a statement on Wednesday.

Whitening creams may contribute up to 71% of the acceptable daily intake (ADI) for mercury, depending upon the product and the amount of the cream used. ADI is the maximum amount of a toxin that a person can be exposed to over a lifetime without any appreciable health risk.

“This is a very high level of exposure to mercury from just one product,” CSE said. “People are regularly exposed to the heavy metal from sources such as food, water and air.”

The presence of mercury in these products is unlawful, according to Sunita Narain, CSE’s director general. “The fact that our lab did not find mercury in 56% of the products tested suggests that the industry has the capacity and wherewithal to clean up their act,” Narain said. “Many companies are following the law. What is stopping the others from doing so?”

Hindustan Unilever, the maker of Pond’s fairness cream and Lakme cosmetics, denied that it adds mercury to any of its cosmetic products.

“Like all Unilever cosmetic products, all Pond’s products (including Ponds White Beauty) are safe, with no added mercury, and manufactured in accordance with good manufacturing practices and in line with BIS (Bureau of Indian Standards) and US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) limits on trace metals,” a company spokesperson said.

“All our products are approved by the FDA for manufacture and sale as safe cosmetics and they comply fully to the guidelines in India and to US FDA guidelines on all aspects including contaminants and heavy metals (which includes mercury).”

Procter and Gamble did not respond to e-mailed queries immediately. Calls to Aroma Magic were unanswered.

The CSE lab, which tested 73 cosmetic products that included skin whitening creams, lipsticks, lip balms and anti-ageing creams, also found chromium, which can cause cancer, in 15 out of the 30 lipsticks tested in range between 0.45 ppm and 17.83 ppm.

“Hearts & Tarts (080V) shade of ColorBar had the highest concentration,” the non-profit organization said.

“Lipstick with highest level of chromium would expose a heavy user to over 15 times the safety limit,” CSE said.

Nickel in the range of 0.57 ppm to 9.18 ppm was found in 13 out of the 30 products tested, with Lancome L’Absolu Nu 204 of L’Oreal India Pvt. Ltd containing the highest concentration, CSE said. Nickel is known to cause skin allergies and cancer.

L’Oreal India, which sells the Lancome brand, denied using metals in cosmetics manufactured by the beauty products company.

“Lancome’s highest priority is the safety of its consumers,” a company spokesperson said. “We do not use heavy metals as ingredients in our products and comply fully with Indian and international cosmetic regulations.” The laboratory did not find any heavy metal in anti-ageing creams and lip balms. It also found no lead or cadmium in lipsticks.

Laws regarding the manufacture of cosmetic products are poorly enforced in the country, according to Chandra Bhushan, CSE’s deputy director general and head of the lab.

“The factual situation is that there are hardly any tests done on cosmetics, even though the industry is growing at more than 10% every year,” Bhushan said.

“Our standards for cosmetics are well-defined. We are ensuring that the Drugs and Cosmetics Act is stricter and the companies that do not adhere to these laws will not be in market. To this effect, we have decided to have a dedicated testing laboratory in Chennai,” said G.N. Singh, the drug controller general of India. “The systems are in place and we are working at implementing the rules better.”

Vidya Krishnan contributed to this story.

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