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Holi Colors - Are They Safe?

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5 min read


Holi is known as the festival of colors. But are the colors worth playing with? Let us find out.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar

Published At March 7, 2023
Reviewed AtJuly 12, 2023


Holi is an ancient festival that celebrates the harvest and marks the onset of spring. Aptly termed as the festival of colors, Holi is celebrated with much fanfare and passion by throwing colors at each other. However, the colors used are not considered health friendly or sanative. In the olden days, Holi colors were organic or natural and were made from different flowers, spices, berries, and other naturally occurring substances. Most of them have beneficial medicinal properties in them. In due course of time with the advent of industrialization and commercialization, these natural colors got replaced with industrial dyes which are manufactured through a series of chemical processes, and thus pose a grave health hazard.

What Are the Components of Holi Colors?

Holi is a riot of colors ranging from red, green, pink, silver, and yellow to black. The colors are available in the form of a paste, dry powder, and water-soluble colors. The following are the ingredients of some of the popular Holi colors:

  • Black - Lead oxide (can lead to kidney failure).

  • Green - Copper sulfate and malachite green (can lead to eye irritation, allergy, or sometimes temporary blindness).

  • Silver - Aluminum bromide (potential cancer-causing or carcinogenic agent).

  • Blue - Prussian blue (can cause contact dermatitis).

  • Red - Mercury sulfate (can cause skin cancer).

  • Purple - Chromium iodide (can cause respiratory conditions such as allergies and bronchial asthma).

Dry Colors

The dry colors of Holi are known as gulal or abeer, which are made of two components, a colorant, and a base. These chemical colors are a deadly combination of heavy metals, asbestos, or silica. These heavy metals lead to systemic toxicity which impairs metabolic functions. They can also accumulate in various organs of the body such as the kidneys, liver, and bones. Asbestos and silica are equally toxic. To give a sparkly effect, mica dust is added to the dry powder. This can further lead to various skin conditions and make one prone to infections. Additionally, contaminated starch or wheat flour can increase the chances of various eye and skin infections. The following are the chemicals present in the dry colors:

  • Lead - Lead is very toxic for kids leading to learning disabilities, and may damage certain vital organs. It can also have a detrimental effect on the fetus.

  • Chromium - Chromium can lead to respiratory distress conditions like asthma or certain other allergies.

  • Cadmium - Cadmium toxicity may lead to fragile bones.

  • Nickel - Nickel toxicity may lead to dermatitis and pneumonia (a lung infection).

  • Copper - It affects several organs such as the eyes, skin, respiratory system, kidneys, and liver.

  • Mercury - Mercury poisoning may have a detrimental effect on the kidneys, nervous system, and liver and also affects unborn kids.

  • Zinc - Zinc poisoning has been linked to fever.

  • Iron - Iron toxicity makes the skin sensitive to light.

  • Silica - Silica may cause harmful effects on the skin leading to dryness and cracking of the skin.

  • Asbestos - Asbestos is a potentially carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemical that may accumulate in various body parts even in small quantities.

Water Colors

Many watercolors have an alkaline base that can cause serious injuries. Colors that are in the form of paste have toxic compounds mixed with engine oil or any other poor-quality oil, that can potentially lead to skin allergy or temporary blindness. When washed, these poisonous chemicals seep into the river, further contaminating the water and soil. One of the widely used watercolors in Holi is Gentian violet. It is a highly toxic chemical. Gentian violet can lead to numerous skin conditions like dermatitis, skin allergies, discoloration, and irritation of the mucous membrane irritation. It can also lead to certain serious eye problems in concentrated forms such as keratoconjunctivitis (an inflammatory eye condition), or purple-stained cornea.

How Do Colors Used During Holi Affect One's Health?


  1. The colors used in Holi include different synthetic dyes such as malachite green, auramine, methyl violet, rhodamine, and orange ll. These colors are mixed with contaminated cornstarch or wheat flour. Mica dust is also added to make them shiny. Most of these chemicals make the skin and eye extremely sensitive to light. This can lead to skin and eye allergies.

  2. One such eye infection is periorbital necrotizing fasciitis. Periorbital necrotizing fasciitis is a progressive, extremely destructive microbial infection of the skin, subcutaneous tissues, soft tissues, and muscle of the periorbital area. Corneal epithelial abrasions and conjunctival chemosis are also common eye problems arising due to such chemical colors. Necrotizing fasciitis is often found to occur after trauma in diabetics, chronic alcoholics, and immunocompromised individuals. It is a severe soft tissue infection leading to gangrene of the skin and suppurative fasciitis. It is mostly found in the abdominal area, groin, and lower extremities. Streptococcus and Staphylococcus are the most common agents causing necrotizing fasciitis.

  3. The ulcers may lead to certain secondary infections after combining with various anaerobic organisms. Periorbital necrotizing fasciitis has a high mortality rate of around 12.5 percent. An early diagnosis and prompt treatment with antibiotics and surgery can be helpful.


  1. Holi colors are also found to affect the skin and can cause severe skin conditions. Common cutaneous problems after exposure to Holi colors include itching, burning sensation, and eczematous reactions. However, there is no direct correlation between the type of color and the skin reaction.

  2. The face and hands are the primary areas that get affected.

  3. Vigorous scrubbing after the festival to remove the colors can also lead to microabrasion.

  4. The dermatoses caused due to Holi colors are mostly contact dermatitis.

  5. Certain pre-existing conditions such as acne vulgaris, eczema, and paronychia have been found to exacerbate after contact with the chemical colors.

Respiratory System

  1. The chemical colors of Holi, when inhaled, irritate the tissues of the nose and throat leading to inflammation. The powdered colors can irritate the nasal and respiratory tract. This can lead to sneezing, coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

  2. It can also trigger certain serious conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in people with pre-existing respiratory ailments.

  3. Pneumonitis and rhinitis can also occur due to exposure to powdered colors.

  4. The chemicals present in the colors can lead to further damage to the respiratory system. Long-term contact or exposure to such chemicals can lead to serious conditions such as emphysema, bronchitis, and lung cancer.


In certain cases, the watercolors may enter the ear, leading to ear infections. The colors enter the ear canal creating an environment for microbes like bacteria to sustain. Water in the ear canal can also lead to itching, earache, or ear blockage.

How To Have a Happy Holi?

Holi can be enjoyed keeping in mind the following:

  • Use of organic and herbal colors should be used instead of chemical ones.

  • Natural homemade colors made with turmeric, beetroot, spinach, etc. can also be used.

  • Moisturize or oil the skin very well before playing Holi.

  • Avoid rubbing the eyes as it can irritate them.

  • After playing, do not scrub the skin rather use a dermatologically tested soap to get rid of the color stains.


Holi is an age-old celebration of colors that is celebrated all over India. Playing with toxic chemical colors and dyes can often lead to different health hazards ranging from certain minor issues to serious conditions. The Holi colors are prepared without any quality check. Organic or herbal Holi colors should be used instead. Natural Holi colors are prepared with the help of vegetable dyes, plant extracts, and other naturally occurring substances that lack the mechano-abrasive and phototoxic properties of chemical colors. Nevertheless, one can still celebrate the festival in high spirits mindfully with natural colors.

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Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar
Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar

Pulmonology (Asthma Doctors)


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