Enhancing Indian cosmetics with Sanju and team

A conversation with cosmetics researcher Sanju Nanda and her team who are finding ways to make cosmetics safer along with their scientific lives in Rohtak, Haryana.
By | Published on Dec 7, 2017
WHO: Sanju Nanda, 51+
WHAT: Pharmaceuticals Scientist
WHERE:  Maharishi Dayanand University, Rohtak

Reported by Aashima Dogra

The Indian cosmetics market is currently worth $6.5 billion and is expected to grow to $35 billion by 2035, a recent survey-based study has concluded. As the popular myth goes, sales of cosmetics skyrocketed in the 90s thanks to the hype generated from Miss World crowns landing on Indian heads. A lesser-known fact is that the liberalisation of the economy in 1991 had a lot to do with this. Following India opening up to the free market, foreign products flooded the markets. Creams, deodorants and gels, we wanted them all.

By the early 2000s, the Indian government decided that some regulation was necessary. Thankfully, there are a few researchers in the country who were keeping a watch. One of them is Sanju Nanda, Professor of Cosmetics at Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Maharshi Dayanand University, Rohtak in Haryana.

“2013 was a significant year for Indian cosmetics,’’ Sanju said in an interview at her office earlier this year. Pressured by agencies like PETA and Humane Society International a ban on animal testing was issued and the Indian Drugs and Cosmetics Act was updated. India became the first South Asian country to join the leagues of the European Union and leaving the US behind to ban animal testing, both in domestic manufacture and imports of cosmetic products. 

“This was the time when the government realised that since India joined the World Trade Organisation, several Asian countries had started dumping a lot of cosmetics into India. There were too many products and their quality was not clear. In 2013, registration was made compulsory for all cosmetic products imported to India,’’ Sanju said.

The same year, Sanju was invited to Osong, South Korea, to meet international cosmetic traders and communicate to them India’s firm new stance on cosmetics. “I was given the first slot of fifty minutes at the Symposium of Asian Cosmetic Development to talk about the changes in the regulatory scenario of cosmetics in India,’’ she said proudly.

A monograph she wrote as a part of consumer education series on behalf of Ministry of Consumer Affairs in 2006 named ‘Cosmetics and Consumers’ supported her through this important responsibility. ‘‘The book is like badam ki giri (almonds); it has everything nutritious in high concentration. Its still useful for me in conferences to motivate students to take up cosmetics research,’’ she said presenting the tiny book priced at Rs 20.

Since then the Indian markets have been showing signs of maturing. Market trends suggest that Indians like herbal cosmetics more; the sales of herbal cosmetics has been growing 12% every year. Sanju and her team of young researchers also favor herbal cosmetics. “We attempt to keep our research in parallel with the regulation of Indian standards as well as the FDA (US). We also like catering to Indian choices, skin types and indigenous sources,’’ Sanju said introducing her team of young researchers.

Starting as researcher, ending up a teacher

Dr. Sanju Nanda at her office in early 2017. Image by Aashima

As a pharmacy student, Sanju took up research in enhancing a drug’s effect by physical means through the skin. She experimented with electricity-assisted drug delivery through the skin for her M.Pharm project at Sagar University in Madhya Pradesh. In 1991, she started her PhD work on a similar area at IIT Delhi, this time trying ultrasound to enhance drug delivery through the skin.

“I was interfacing pharmacy with engineering for using the skin to deliver the medicines. This is called transdermal drug delivery and was all the rage at the time. Skin is an important organ of course not just wrapping paper. There are blood vessels below the skin where a lot of the medicines end up reaching however you take them. But skin is also a barrier, it does not allow very fast absorption. So with the use of electrical energy and ultrasound, I attempted to enhance the permeation or delivery of some model drugs.’’

As soon the experiments at IIT was done and dusted, Sanju picked up the baton for teaching. “Initially, I wanted to be in the army to serve the country, but at that time girls weren’t eligible to join the army.’’ Right after IIT, she started to teach at Dr. KN Modi Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research in Uttar Pradesh. “I realised then that teaching is also a way to serve the country. It gives you access to the future generations. It was not only about educating them, but also about mentoring them. I liked the journey very much and decided to continue teaching.’’

Giving her company as pharmacy teacher, was Arun Nanda, her husband. In 1998, the couple moved to Rohtak, Sanju’s birthplace, to be part of the founding team of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at MDU.


“I was the only female over here. I had three male colleagues, including my husband. In the years that it took to establish the department, I had to teach subjects which were not my specialisation (cosmetics was one of them) and do whatever job was given to me – like inviting guests for conferences, office tasks, buying curtains, sorting arguments between students and taking care of the women’s cell. In 2006, we got more faculty members.  Finally, we are now growing.’’ Today the department has seventeen faculty member.

The cost of this growth was Sanju’s research ambitions. “There was a gap in my research because after moving from IIT, I was just teaching and developing the infrastructure and curriculum of the department. There was no environment for research.’’

The spell was broken in 2005 when Sanju received a project from All India Council for Technical Education to further her work on increasing efficacy of drugs with ultrasound technology. “My first PhD scholar Nandkishore Yadav worked on this with anti-aging benefits of some cosmetics. He was the only man in the department to look into cosmetics since it is a taboo area for them. Usually, male students insist that I assign them to drugs that have an industrial aspect.”

Grey area between cosmetics and drugs

Sanju believes there is a lot more work to be done in this field, especially since many cosmetics fall in a huge grey area and these products often overlooked. Only in 1964 Amendment was the word Cosmetics added to the Indian Drugs And Cosmetics Act 1940.

“The technical definition of cosmetics is articles meant to be poured, sprinkled and sprayed for the purpose of cleaning, beautifying or promoting attractiveness,” Sanju said. But many products sold as cosmetics do not stay inside the border of this definition. For example, fluoridated toothpaste, antiperspirants, anti-dandruff shampoo or anti-acne creams. These are termed as cosmetics in the marketplace but have inside them therapeutic agents and not just those that ‘beautify’. “These are medicines in cosmetic vehicles, or quasi drugs as they call them in Japan’’. In some countries, they call these ‘functional cosmetics’ and in others, they are termed over-the-counter drugs. In India, the boundaries seem to be blurry. ‘‘If it is only a cosmetic, the manufacturers don’t need a license to sell it, they only need one to manufacture it. In case of drugs the manufacturers need licenses for both.’’

“Cosmetics need to get the same kind of attention and quality check as drugs since cosmetics also stay in contact with the skin for long hours. Cosmetics are meant for beautification by definition on one side while the consumers are emotionally exploited on the other side by misleading claims and advertisements. Cosmetic products are loaded with many such chemicals which may be harmful for the users and not disclosed in the label. Ethically designed cosmetics are the need of the hour,’’ Sanju appeals.

The next generation that Sanju has inspired

Today Sanju considers herself fortunate to take the research forward with many lab hours put in by her all-female team of full-time research fellows: Kumud Madan, Sapna Saini and Sheeffali Mahant. All of them have been lecturers at colleges and universities in Haryana. But to go further in their research life, they must first finish their PhDs. They are the next generation that Sanju has inspired.


Under Sanju’s guidance, Kumud is developing a sunscreen with reduced amounts of avoidable chemicals and a high load of saffron oil called Safranal. Motivated by recent US FDA guidelines, Kumud’s sunscreen will be a broad spectrum one, meaning it will protect skin from both UV-A and UV-B types of radiation. “The problem I am tackling right now is how to incorporate a liquid and volatile drug (safranal) in a delivery system,’ Kumud said. Due to the unavailability of highly specialised and expensive machines for some of her experiments, Kumud has to broaden her horizons. Luckily, scientific equipment is not far away. “Recently, I went to IIT Delhi for scanning electron microscopy (SEM) sampling. I just paid Rs 500 to the IIT lab and got it done.’’

Sapna is almost at the end of her research. At the department’s extraction laboratory she extracted three herbal extracts from local plants to make a potion for quick wound healing. Sanju is now helping her formulate a cosmetic product with the extracts. “It could be a gel or a spray for which you don’t need physical contact, which is helpful while handling wounds,’’ Sanju explained


Sheefali, Sanju’s newest fellow is working on an anti-acne formulation with indigenous essential oils. The name of the oil neither Sanju or Sheefali will reveal. ‘‘This project has a novelty which we have to protect’’, they explained. “Currently the products in the market either contain antibiotics and chemicals that are very irritating to the skin. They cause excessive dryness and itchiness. With antibiotics, there is the high possibility of bacteria developing resistance and the formulation becoming ineffective after some time. The aim of my dissertation is to design and develop a formulation which is devoid of these drawbacks,’’ Sheefali said.

Being a woman in science in Haryana

Besides high-end instrumentation, what the women scientists at MDU Rohtak are also lacking is the feeling of safety.

“After nine, we don’t feel safe in the department or in the university,’’ Sheefali said. The riots in Rohtak last year did not help. “People’s mindset towards Rohtak and Haryana has become very negative.” So when she went to Manipal University, she compared notes with her colleagues there. “It is better in South India,’’ she feels. “At Manipal they have good security so you can stay back until midnight. But here you have to leave your work midway. Even in the city, you don’t feel safe. It is not just about the university, the surrounding area also matters.”

“In Punjab University and IIT, girls can work late because they live in hostels on campus. None of us are put up in the hostel so we can’t take that risk,” Kumud weighed in.

Kumud and Sapna have families with children who they cannot leave behind to live in a hostel. Sheefali is lucky to have a relative in Rohtak who she stays with.

For Kumud, Sanju has been a big help in difficult times. “Being a woman, she understands some of the problems that we face. When my boy was hospitalised for a fortnight, she asked me to take my time and join after he was discharged and well again.”


Sapna, who is mother to two said: ‘have you watched ki and kaa?’ when questioned her lab-family balance. She was referring to the Bollywood film where husband and wife gladly exchange household and career chores counterintuitive to societies expectations. “I belong to a village in Haryana where people don’t send their girls to science, they prefer arts or something else. Science takes time and tuition are required. They don’t want to give so much time and money. I was lucky because of my uncle who owned a school and pushed for me to study higher when he saw I was the school topper,’’ she said. Sapna’s husband, also a pharmacy graduate is currently attempting to get through the same department in which his wife works.

At the condition of not being named the three scholars shared a few more experiences.

“The society is still reluctant to promote higher studies for women,’’ they said. Sometimes science comes in the way of marriage and not the other way round. “Families of suitors are too very concerned with the girl’s income. If you say you are a researcher with a scholarship, they don’t think too highly of that. They think ‘if our son is earning at least 10 lakh per annum, then the girl should at least earn 6 lakh,’’ they said.

“We have many relatives who say: Kitna padhe gee? Itna padhkar kya hoga? Budhe ho jate hai, Chashme lag jaate hai. Kya milta hai? (How much will you study? You will grow old and spectacled and what will you get in the end?) Society has still not warmed up to science for women,” they concluded. 

About the author(s)

Aashima is a freelance science communicator, author and editor. She co-founded thelifeofscience.com in 2016.

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