Halal Cosmetics: Between Real Concerns and Plain Ignorance
By Kamarul Aznam Kamaruzaman
Despite commanding an impressive market size, the Muslim cosmetic-using population seemed blissfully happy dabbing their cheeks with products of questionable health and religious compliance. On the other hand, perhaps they just sincerely did not know…
Tasha just turned fourteen and among her Form Two peers at the Convent Bukit Nanas Secondary School here in Kuala Lumpur, she is considered to be the most popular, not least because of her looks. Of mixed parentage between her Malay mom and her German dad, Tasha’s Pan-Asian looks have been featured in many television commercials and teen magazines. It is not surprising that of all her many birthday presents, the one she loved the most is from her mom: a Body Shop’s birthday gift set. “She seemed so happy, so innocent,” said her mom. “I don’t want her to lose out on being a teenager. It means so much to her, I mean, look at her…,” she said smilingly as Tasha gets an impromptu mini makeover amidst the shrieking and laughter of her friends. Mom says she respects and support what the brand stands for, and would like to pass this on to her daughter. “I want her to feel good about herself, but I also want to teach her to be more responsible. She needs to know what she’s doing or using is not harmful to herself, the environment and most importantly, to her faith,” said mom.
Like many other emerging economies, Malaysia is not spared from the global marketing onslaught wielded by major cosmetics manufacturers. Fear of being left behind has driven Malaysia’s Muslim majority population to embrace the Western image of perfection, however flawed it might be. “With an increase in global communication, mass consumerism and sophisticated marketing, there is so much social pressure on women to emulate the 16-year-old, slim and tall models with porcelain skin and no signs of ageing,” said Dr Mah Hussain-Gambles, founder and formulator of her own Halal certified skincare range – Saaf Pure Skincare, a UK-based Halal cosmetics brand. “With improved technology, it is now also becoming easier to maintain youthful looks.
With all the choice and availability, it is no surprise that female consumers are increasingly buying more cosmetics,” said the London-based Muslim chemist turned entrepreneur. As it is, Europe is the world’s largest producer of cosmetic products, followed by the United States and Japan. Out of the total projected global cosmetics sales of € 126 billion in 2007, the European market has the largest share of about 55 per cent. Major global cosmetics producers are mainly multinational companies such as L’Oreal Group, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Shiseido, Esteé Lauder, Avon, and Johnson & Johnson.
Many of them are also involved in other sectors such as pharmaceuticals, chemicals and food products. Behind this glitter and glamour however, lies an overgrown monster desperate for an extreme makeover. “It is actually a much more ruthless global industry than we are led to believe,” said Muhammed Hamudi Sheikh Abdul Khalid, executive chairman of El-Hajj Products Sdn Bhd, who manufactures a range of Halal certified skincare products for use during umrah and Hajj. “Adhering to Shariah is probably the last thing on their minds,” he added. Rising cost of funds also meant that the market players had to continually invest in the most cost effective raw ingredients, and that is happily rendered by the rendering industry. Renderers call themselves "the invisible industry" and are thankful that most people remain blissfully unaware of their existence.
At hundreds of plants in the United States each year, more than 12.5 million tonnes of dead animals, bones, fat and meat waste, and used cooking fats and oils are heat-treated and melted down. Most of it to become protein supplements fed to pets, chickens, cows, sheep and other animals, whilst the rest are used to make products ranging from gelatine to cosmetics. Although Islamic scholars have differing opinions on the rendering process, citing the change-of-state, or istihala, as the central argument to the acceptable use of gelatine and cosmetics, the verdict is however clear on the use of swine placenta in many types of cosmetics including wrinkle creams and facemasks. Due to its biological similarities to human placenta and its excellent skin healing properties, swine placenta is considered as the darling of the cosmetics industry, not least because it is cheap and is easily available. “With regard to swine placenta, I would not be surprised if it is still used in some commercial brands, in parts of the world that have little or no regulatory processes,” said Dr Mah. “I would advise buying cosmetics from the EU, which has very strict legislations for the manufacturer to indicate all ingredients on the label.” Considering the hefty investment that the industry pledges in scientific research and development, product innovation and expansion into new markets across the globe, she says it should be easier for the industry to come up with ‘friendlier’ alternatives.
Concerns over the health and environmental hazards posed by the cosmetics industry are also on the rise. In 2002, the Breast Cancer Fund, Environmental Working Group, National Black Environmental Justice Network and others launched the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Its goal is the phase-out of cosmetics ingredients linked to cancer, birth defects, and other health problems. In May 2006, Friends of the Earth and the International Centre for Technology Assessment petitioned the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to monitor products with nano-particle ingredients, including more than 100 cosmetics and sunscreens. Due to their incredibly small size, nano-particles can enter tissues and cells, thus are able to cause biochemical damage. Some of their findings are staggering: breast cancer, genital abnormalities, and distortion and damage of genetic material, passed on to infants during breast-feeding.
These are just some of the health hazards discovered but played down and categorised as “junk science” by the deep-pocketed global cosmetics industry. Whenever the public’s approval ratings go down, the industry would activate “green-washing” tactics, or environmental public relation exercise, to portray the renderer and the entire cosmetics industry to be as “socially responsible” and “dedicated to preserving the environment.” This is quite understandable, as the stakes are very high indeed. Nevertheless, while many animal, health and environmental organisations are pushing for some form of reform within the mainstream cosmetics industry, the Muslim consumers are continually being left unheard, despite the potentially high market share it commands.
A recent survey conducted by Messe Frankfurt GmbH, organisers of the Beautyworld Middle East event in Dubai, tells of a more compelling argument – approximately USD150 million worth of Halal merchandise are distributed through the United Arab Emirates every year, and a significant proportion of these are said to be accounted for cosmetics and personal care items. In the Middle Eastern region, the market size of Halal personal care products is currently estimated to be worth approximately USD560 million. The market for beauty and grooming products in the Middle East as a whole is said to be currently growing at 12 per cent per annum, with cosmetic-related sales valued at USD2.1 billion last year. In Saudi Arabia alone, the total sales of cosmetics-related products reached USD1.3 billion in 2006.
According to Elaine O’Connor, senior show manager for Messe Frankfurt, organisers of Beautyworld Middle East, the growth is being mirrored by the demand for Halal personal care products, which in turn is being driven by increased consumer knowledge of the ingredients used and the way they are produced. A recent survey conducted by KasehDia Consulting revealed that although the existing awareness of Halal cosmetics is still low, there has been increasing level of awareness concerning Halal cosmetics, and consumers who are all set to purchase Halal cosmetics, if and when they are readily available. The survey found that approximately approximately 57.6 and 37.7 per cent of Muslims in emerging markets like Singapore and Indonesia, respectively, are aware and claim that they will purchase Halal cosmetics if the products are available. Among these respondents, however, more than half admitted to having difficulties finding Halal cosmetics. “Admittedly the current awareness level on Halal cosmetics is still low,” said Irfan Sungkar, head of research and strategic projects at KasehDia Consulting, “but it is definitely increasing rapidly.” “The problem here is the availability of these products. This is possibly due to the accessibility of ingredients and raw materials that complies with Halal standards, and assuring the integrity of its Halal status.
It is a vicious cycle that the industry needs to overcome,” he added. The common problem here, it seems, is choice, or in this case, the lack of it. “The only way I can get Halal certified facial wash, not even cosmetics mind you, is if a friend drives up to Malaysia and buy it for me,” writes a Singaporean blogger MissFit. “At least they have more home-grown and natural products, and they are also Halal certified.” As it is, there is one well-known Halal certified cosmetics range in Singapore; that being the Sheer Secrets skincare range, manufactured by Sheer Healthpharm Pte Ltd. By capitalising on the country’s diversified natural flora and fauna with the help of biotechnology, Malaysia has been successful in developing its resource-based bio-generic industry, including the cosmetics and personal care sector.
The Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) ensures that they are also Halal-compliant. “For Halal cosmetics, we really need to do very aggressive promotions,” said Wan Norma Wan Daud, director of the Product and Services Development Division, Malaysian External Trade Development Corporation or MATRADE. As the agency entrusted to promote Malaysian trade and export overseas, MATRADE is also responsible in promoting Malaysian Halal exports overseas. Some of the Malaysian Halal certified cosmetics brands include Safi, Binari, Syahirah, Clara International, and a few others. “We not only need to create awareness amongst the Muslims that they should be concerned about the cosmetic’s composition, but also tell them that Halal cosmetics are available and where to get them. Malaysia can sell a lot especially to the Middle East, simply because ours is certified Halal,” she added. She also thinks that Islamic scholars must set the record straight on various issues concerning the use of cosmetics and the set limits for Muslims.
One immediate issue is the fatwa on cosmetic plastic surgeries to beautify ‘defects’, or the use of Botox injections for a more youthful and younger looking skin. So far, Malaysia remains as the only country to issue a fatwa and disallow the use of Botox by Muslims. Others however, regard a fatwa on such a matter as irrelevant. “Can we even consider putting on makeup to show non-muhrims as darurah?” asked Yazid Yahya, a local banker and a doting dad of two daughters. “In other words, can someone die if they do not get their daily dose of powder, lipstick and eyeliner?” Yazid looked utterly bewildered.
Scientists should also come up with more affordable Halal alternatives to replace the existing controversial ingredients. The legacy of Al Razi (Rhazes) in the fields of biotechnology over 1,000 years ago should easily be the main driving force for today’s Muslim scientists. The global Muslim consumers themselves should also exercise their rights and push the mainstream cosmetics industry to listen to their grievances. Just Google “cosmetic concerns” and a whole list of websites dedicated to various causes opens up.
Be it against animal testing, organic, safe, natural, or ethical, the list goes on. Halal activists however, are nowhere to be seen. In fact, the Muslim market can easily find powerful allies who support ethical and healthy businesses, including natural and organic, vegetarian, environmentally friendly and fair trade industries. The potential Muslim market is indeed enormous. However, before anybody can reap the rewards, there needs to be a serious shifting of the mindsets of the mainstream cosmetics manufacturers, the global Muslim consumers, and the scholars and scientists alike. But the signs are all there: the next wave of change in cosmetics will be more faith-based.
Truth is; there are so much the mainstream cosmetics industry can learn from Halal and all its inherent values. Not just a lifestyle, it is a confirmation that what Allah swt has designed for us is undoubtedly better. Better for us, both physically and spiritually; better for the animals we raise and eat; and better for the environment and the land we live on. Ultimately, it can also be very good for business.
In a Hadith, Nabi (Sallallaahu Alayhi Wasallam) mentions, 'Verily Halaal is clear, and verily Haraam is clear. And between them there are certain doubtful matters many people are unaware of, therefore, who stays away from doubtful matters he has protected his Deen and honour. And who gets involved in doubtful matters, he would fall into Haraam.' (Bukhari; Muslim)
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