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KARACHI, Sept 28: A number of the mehndi (henna) and black mehndi brands on the market are adulterated with toxic and/or carcinogenic substances which can not only cause instant allergic reactions but may also enter the blood stream via the skin, Dawn has learnt.

The widespread sale of such hazardous dyes is made easier by the fact that there is no law specifically covering the adulteration of cosmetic products.

An analysis of various popular mehndi and black mehndi brands revealed the presence of toxic chemicals, metals, organic solvents and textile dyes, most of which are carcinogenic in nature. Despite the fact that hospitals report a large number of cases in which people’s skins have been damaged or scarred after using adulterated mehndi, the market continues to thrive. This can be traced not only to public ignorance, but the fact that there is a legal vacuum given that no section of the Drugs Act 1976 deals specifically with the use of chemicals in cosmetic products. As a result, all sorts of hazardous chemicals continue to be sold openly at Jodia bazaar, including dangerously adulterated mehndi.

Shopkeepers told Dawn that there are between 30 and 40 brands of mehndi on the market, none of which give a detailed list of ingredients. “Each manufacturer has his own secret formula,” informed a shopkeeper. “Mehndi is available in different colours, forms and fragrances, some of which can colour the skin or hair as fast as within five minutes. Black mehndi, which is popular as a hair dye, is also used to prepare various glitters, a substance used to make a dark outlining pattern on the hands that is then filled in with a different shade of mehndi, and a substance like nail polish which is called ‘nail arq’. These cosmetic products have also been introduced on the market.”

Meanwhile, a shopkeeper in the section of Jodia bazaar that deals with chemicals, said that sodium picramate, turpinol (commonly called mehndi oil), oxalic acid and titanium dioxide are mixed with mehndi powder to intensify and accelerate the colourant’s effect.

KU’s findings

A preliminary qualitative analysis of five popular mehndi brands, including common mehndi, extracts of the henna plants (Lawsonia inermis) and black mehndi, was carried out by Dr Nasiruddin Khan, the head of the centralised science laboratory at Karachi University. He found that the samples contained traces of toxic chemicals, organic solvents and textile dyes, most of which are carcinogenic. “These heavily-laced products are sold with the claim that they will give instant colour, which is not only adulteration but also open deception since there are no details about the ingredients,” he pointed out.

Dr Khan informed Dawn that the tests he carried out showed that turpinol and camphor, highly volatile organic solvents that enter the blood stream when they come into direct contact with the skin or when their fumes are inhaled, had been added to the mehndi. Turpinol is a bleaching agent while camphor produces a cooling affect as it evaporates rapidly. Organic solvents of any sort damage skin cells and have wide-ranging side effects.

“Most organic solvents contain benzene ring compounds whose hazardous effects are well-known,” he said. “Oxalic acid is a bleaching agent generally used for removing kitchen stains and polishing wood. We also found that the samples contained traces of textile dye, including pyrogallol and disperse orange dye, which are carcinogenic.”

Other harmful substances found in the mehndi samples included toxic metal salts such as lead, nickel and chromium, which Dr Khan believes are used to intensify colour. “These substances damage human health directly, and meanwhile unnecessarily introduce toxic metals into the environment where they contaminate ground water and contribute aquatic pollution,” he commented.

Another substance found in the mehndi samples was sodium picramate, the salt of picric acid. “That is a very strong and dangerous chemical,” said Dr Khan. “Before trinitrotoluene became popular, sodium picramate was used as an explosive and is still sometimes put to that use. It reacts with body protein to develop colour, and it is one of the main ingredients in ‘instant’ mehndi.”

Dr Khan’s investigations revealed that black mehndi also contains Paraphenylenediamine (PPD) which is used in hair dyes all over the world, but in strictly-regulated concentrations. The black mehndi samples he tested, however, had concentration of PPD varying between 10 and 60 per cent. “The irony is that the package labels do not specify whether the dye is for the hands or the hair,” he pointed out. “High concentration of PPD can cause severe damage and should not be applied directly to the skin.”

According to information available on the Internet, PPD penetrates deep into the skin, reaching the dermis (living cells) and then passing into the blood stream. This is extremely dangerous since PPD toxins subsequently collect in the liver and cause liver and kidney damage. The prolonged presence of PPD can cause cancer in these organs.

A widespread problem

Doctors say that while not all the people exposed to the hazardous substances in mehndi develop skin problems, a significant number of patients report to government and private hospitals in this regard.

The Institute of Skin Diseases, Karachi, receives up to 50 patients a day complaining of skin problems that are due to the use of substandard hair dyes such as black mehndi and common mehndi. The head of the institute, Dr Sikandar A. Mahar, told Dawn that most people come with allergic symptoms such as rashes, swelling, blisters and itchiness. “The treatment is symptomatic and patients are advised to refrain from using hair dyes that contain ammonia,” he said.

Similarly, Professor Dr Zarnaz Wahid of the Civil Hospital Karachi said that such patients are received at his institution as well. “Natural mehndi, which is derived solely from the plant, does not cause allergies,” he explained. “Skin problems related to the use of chemically-laced mehndi are often traced to beauty salons which apply a PPD preparation.”

Patients suffering allergic contact dermatitis caused by adulterated mehndi also go to the Aga Khan University Hospital whose consultant dermatologist, Dr Naseema Kapadia, told Dawn that “while we don’t have any tabulated data about such patients, the problem is common. We usually get such cases during the wedding season and at Eid.”

Legal vacuum

That the adulteration of commonly-used mehndi has become so large-scale is unsurprising given that there is no law regulating the use of chemicals in cosmetics.

The Drugs Act 1976, which is the relevant legislation, has no provision referring to the use of chemicals in cosmetic products. This gives manufacturers a free hand to use any chemical in any proportion.

When approached by Dawn, the executive district officer (health) Dr A. D. Sajnani conceded that the legal vacuum existed. “Yes there is a need for laws on the use of chemicals in cosmetic products,” he admitted. “Beauty salons are issued licences and are inspected in terms of the working conditions of the employees, but there are no restrictions on the type of products they use. There ought to be some regulations since chemicals can be allergens or carcinogenic.”

“The misuse of chemicals in local cosmetics poses a serious health hazard and there is a dire need to incorporate this concern in the existing drugs act,” agreed Dr Qaiser Sajjad, former secretary-general of the Pakistan Medical Association. “However, it must be emphasised that laws alone cannot safeguard public interest if the government itself fails to enforce the laws. This failure is evident in the business of manufacturing counterfeit drugs, which is thriving despite the fact that the law prescribes harsh punishment for offenders. Furthermore, people should refrain from using or encouraging products that are sold without full lists of ingredients and dates of manufacture and expiry.”

‘Real’ mehndi

Pure mehndi, or henna, is entirely natural and is extracted from the henna plant. According to Dharamdas Rajani, the president of the Sindh Abadgar Board, Dadu, natural mehndi has to be soaked in liquid for two to three hours before it can be used. Depending on the weather conditions, the drying period can vary from half an hour to two hours.

“No natural mehndi can give instant colour in five minutes, or any colour other than chocolate-brown or orange-red. There is no natural black mehndi,” he said. “Any product that claims such fast colouring action or different colours is bound to be mixed with strong chemicals.”

Mr Rajani added that mehndi is grown mainly in district Dadu, along the bank on the Indus River, particularly in Mehar.

The safety of henna as a hair colourant was evaluated in 2005 by the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Cosmetic and Non-Food Products. The committee concluded that lawsone (also known as hennotannic acid), which is a red-orange dye present in the leaves of the henna plant and is the principal colouring ingredient in mehndi, was mutagenic and unsuitable for use as a hair dye.