PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 December, 2006, 12:00am

ON THE FACE of it, the Consumer Council seems to be kicking up a fuss over minor transgressions. The watchdog's alert last month warned that tests on many popular lipsticks showed they contained various metal compounds and bacteria. Yet most levels did not exceed international safety standards. So is the council being alarmist? Are its calls for legislation to regulate beauty products unwarranted?

Maybe not if financial planner Samantha Wong Wai-sze's experience is anything to go by. The 29-year-old developed a sudden reaction to her makeup about a month ago, with rashes and blisters erupting on her face. Since then Wong has had to avoid all such products, and the only thing she's been applying is an ointment prescribed by her dermatologist.

'Initially, I wanted to take a few days off and stay home, but I couldn't due to my busy schedule,' she says. 'So I covered the blemishes with a piece of gauze instead. My colleagues and friends kept asking what happened to my cheek; it was very awkward.'

Now, Wong is checking in the mirror every day to see if the inflammation has faded sufficiently for her to attend the year-end parties.

Her woes first appeared as a tiny rash under her right eye. But within days, it had spread across the cheek - along with some pus-filled blisters. Wong's dermatologist, Henry Chan Hin-lee, says tests showed she had become sensitive to nickel and cobalt compounds found in the makeup. Although the products came from prestigious brands and had been purchased from recognised counters, that's no guarantee the products would be allergen-free, says Chan, who treats at least one patient with similar problems every day.

As it turned out, the compounds were contaminants in the cosmetics. While less harmful compared to heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium, they can still cause damage, says Christopher Lam Wai-kei, a professor of chemical pathology at the Chinese University. Long-term exposure to metals can pose a health risk, especially if ingested and accumulated in the body.

'The metals don't form part of the ingredients to make cosmetics, so they should not be present in the products,' Lam says. 'Their occurrence shows there was contamination during production.'

The Consumer Council's deputy chief executive, Connie Lau Yin-hing, sees such cases as evidence of the need for stricter controls on cosmetics and skincare products. 'Beauty products are used by women day and night, so we expect them to be free [of] impurities and to be safe to apply on the face and skin,' says Lau. 'This is especially the case with lipstick, as the chemicals are easily taken into the body.'

And that's why the Consumer Council issued a warning over the results from recent tests even though levels of many contaminants did not exceed international limits, Lau says.

Of the 40 lipsticks sampled - including many big international brands - 90 per cent were found to have different metals or bacteria, and sometimes both.

Twenty-six of the samples contained nickel - two with levels of 12 parts per million (ppm) and 16ppm, exceeding the 10ppm limit set in Germany. Bacteria were found in the same number of samples, two of which had levels of 100 colony-forming units per gram.

Although bacteria levels are below the mainland limit of 500 CFU/g (Hong Kong sets none), Lau says that could still render users with cuts or scratches on their skin vulnerable to infection.

Seven lipstick samples contained up to 7.8ppm of lead - well below the mainland limit of 40ppm. Three samples had levels of antimony of between 2.3ppm and 7.8ppm. There are no standards on antimony, but the council says the less there is, the better.

Makeup and skincare products are governed by the Consumer Goods Safety Ordinance, along with items ranging from boots to buckets. The onus is on manufacturers and retailers, but Lau says the provision does the 'bare minimum' to protect consumers and fails to address the special nature of beauty products. 'How can a law for items such as kitchen utensils and furniture be used to regulate cosmetics, which are directly applied on the face?' she asks.

'The consumer goods ordinance provides minimal protection.'

For one thing, the law doesn't specify which substances should be prohibited in beauty products. Neither does it require manufacturers to label the contents and provide basic information such as production and expiry dates. Such information is mandatory only in specific circumstances, for example, if there's a chance misuse of the products may cause harm.

Lau says this compares poorly with EU nations and the US, where specific laws are drafted to regulate beauty products. 'They ... detail the use of dyes, preservatives, and set limits on substances and clearly spell out labelling requirements.'

However, the Consumer Council has appealed for more than a decade for specific legislation to cover cosmetic products in Hong Kong to little avail. As a result, cosmetic companies, including some international names, take advantage of this gap to avoid proper labelling. Lau estimates half the beauty products sold in Hong Kong fail to provide expiry dates and adequate labelling of ingredients.

But the chairman of the Federation of Beauty Industry, Nelson Ip Sai-hung, dismisses the suggestion as impractical. 'Full disclosure of the chemicals is meaningless since most lay people don't know what they are anyway.' Many cosmetics manufacturers are reluctant to provide a detailed list of product content for fear of revealing trade secrets, he adds.

Ip says most retailers are honest and won't put customers at risk, but concedes it will help to better control product quality if the government issues a list of banned and restricted substances.

However, the chairman insists stringent import regulations and labelling requirements will erode the city's business advantage. 'Cosmetics are like clothes. Something which is all the rage this season may soon become outdated,' Ip says. 'We have an edge now in importing and selling all the latest products.' Additional labelling or further sales requirements will impose further costs on companies, which may eventually drive them away, he says.

Lau argues that better consumer protection can only boost the city's image. Stocking some 2,000 brands from around the world, Hong Kong is seen as a great bazaar for beauty products - especially by mainland and regional tourists. But the council has registered steady increases in complaints about beauty and skincare products, with cases rising from 137 in 2003 to 201 last year. To the end of October this year it has already received 201 complaints.

Most complaints are related to allergies, misleading labelling and poor product quality, including items that have deteriorated past their shelf life.

Stricter regulation will reduce such problems, Lau says. At the least, better labelling will help consumers avoid beauty products with contents that they are sensitive to and facilitate treatment when they develop sudden allergies. Why should cosmetics companies be allowed to apply different standards for customers in Hong Kong, Lau asks. 'They are all consumers and you should practise a uniform standard, one that is applied to protect the interests of all consumers, regardless of where they reside.'