Use of animal source in cosmetics best kept secret

Most consumers in India  are unaware of the fact that  cosmetics  and toiletries have ingredients derived from   animal sources.  

Shampoos,  for example, may contain keratin- protein extracted  from horns, hooves, beaks, claws, feathers and   quills of various animals and  birds.  Or guanine, a crystalline material obtained from  fish scales. Guanine (and even keratin)  may well be an ingredient in a number of products such as   hair conditioners, skin care products,  eye make up, lipsticks and   nail  care products.  Even  extracts from  animal placenta could be a component of anti-wrinkle creams. 

Similarly, most  consumers would not realise that the rich , red pigment used in lipsticks and some other cosmetics  and  indicated  as ‘carmine’ or carminic acid or cochineal extract  in the list of ingredients,  is derived from  the female cochineal  insects.   Or that millions  of these beetles  that inhabit Central and South America  and feed on red cactus berries are crushed to  produce that red pigment.  Even fish glue and gelatin may be added during the processing of this dye.

In fact, one of the best kept secrets of the cosmetics (and toiletries)  industry   is that many of the ingredients used in the preparation are sourced from animals.      It, therefore, comes as no surprise that they are now  up in arms against  the  notification issued  by the Union ministry of consumer affairs asking them to reveal this information.The notification, for the first time, aims to lift that veil of secrecy over the source of ingredients used in the Rs 60,000-crore beauty industry,  fulfills the  consumer’s right to information and thereby, the right to informed decision making.  

It gives those consumers who do not want to use personal care  products containing animal ingredients- either because of their strong views on animal rights or because of certain cultural, sentimental or religious beliefs - that vital information to  choose only those products that are sourced from plants. 

But more important,  the  red and the green dots will force all those consumers who never bothered  about the ingredients of these products, to start thinking about all those animals that are ruthlessly and cruelly  exploited , in order   to pander to human vanity.  Well, manufacturers may argue that  ignorance is  bliss, but that’s an argument that animal rights activists will not buy.  Nor consumers, when it comes to making informed choices.

I would see this notification as an adjunct to  sub-rule  (7) of Rule 148  of the  Drugs and Cosmetics rules that  made it mandatory, in 2009,  for packages containing cosmetics to list the ingredients used.   Even though this was  meant to satisfy the consumer’s right to information, it has not fully served the purpose  because of the incompleteness of this information.   Take, for example, steroids, mentioned as one of the ingredients in a cosmetic product.   Since steroids  can be sourced from animal glands or plant tissues,  it is not  possible to  glean   the source,  even if one diligently  went through the list of ingredients mentioned on the package. There are a number of ingredients such as panthenol,   used in shampoos and conditioners, being another example.  Placenta can also be animal or plant extract.     Vegetarian and non-vegetarian labelling will remove this ambiguity and add value to the information provided on packages.

Today, a number of cosmetics and toiletry products claim that they have only ‘natural’ ingredients.  We assume that  ‘natural’ means only plant products. But that is not necessarily so, as even animal products are ‘natural’ products.   Brown or green labelling will, therefore, bring more clarity on the ingredients.  Similarly,   when a product claims that it is a ‘herbal product’, we  assume that it only contains ingredients coming from plants.   Likewise,  are cosmetics marketed as ‘ayurvedic’ product, purely   vegetarian?  Vegetarian and non-vegetarian labelling will clear these doubts and eliminate misleading claims by manufacturers.

The notification requiring identification of non-vegetarian ingredients,  also complements two very positive recent  developments  in the area of animal protection vis-à-vis cosmetics, brought about by intense campaigning  by animal rights activists. These are the amendments to the  Drugs and Cosmetics Rules  prohibiting   testing of cosmetics   on animals  and also import of  cosmetics tested on animals, notified on May 21   and October 13 of this year, respectively. 

The manufacturers have now challenged the notification (of June 16, brought into effect from July 1)   in the Bombay High Court, which has, through an interim order, stayed its implementation.  While the ministry of consumer affairs is preparing to battle it out, one hopes that eventually, the consumer will emerge the victor and consumers, who pay a steep price for personal care products, will  have the option of exercising their right to information and informed choice.
(The writer is a New Delhi - based  freelance journalist specialising in consumer issues)

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