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Some disposable cotton swab products found to contain general bacteria and fluorescent whitening agents exceeding permissible levels 2018-12-20

Some disposable cotton swab products found to contain general bacteria and fluorescent whitening agents exceeding permissible levels


- Safety management and oversight for hygiene products need to be strengthened -


    Cotton swabs are a versatile staple of everyday life for hygiene, body cleanliness, etc., and various kinds of swab products, depending on age to use and materials, are currently being sold in the market. However, some products were found to contain general bacteria and fluorescent whitening agents exceeding acceptable levels, requiring extra attention from consumers.


    This was revealed by the KCA (President Lee, Hee Sook)’s testing and label examinations for 33 disposable cotton swab products* distributed and sold in the market.

* 33 disposable cotton swab products which were rated the highest selling product by manufacturer

[(By age to use) 24 products for adults, 9 products for children / (By material) 11 wooden stick cotton swabs, 12 plastic stick cotton swabs, 10 paper stick cotton swabs]


 Six products contain general bacteria and fluorescent whitening agents exceeding permissible levels.

    Six products (18.2%) out of 33 tested disposable cotton swab products were found to contain general bacteria (five products) and fluorescent whitening agents (one product) exceeding permissible levels.


    More specifically, the five products contained general bacteria exceeding the permissible level (less than 300CFU/g) by at least 1.1 times (335CFU/g) to a maximum of 1,206.7 times (362,000CFU/g), and the one product contained fluorescent whitening agents (which must NOT be detected).


     In addition, one product was found to contain formaldehyde (61mg/kg), but currently, there are no standards for acceptable levels of formaldehyde in disposable cotton swabs.


    However, sanitary products such as disposable paper napkins, dish cloths, towels, toilet paper, etc. (4mg/L) coming in direct contact with the body just like cotton swabs, and diapers for children younger than 36 months old and single-use diapers (20mg/L, 75mg/L) have standards regarding formaldehyde, and thus improvements need to be made in cotton swab-related formaldehyde standards.


All of the tested wood stick cotton swab products showed that at least one to a maximum of nine of every 300 swab sticks were broken, thereby having a high risk of causing safety incidents.

    Out of 33 tested disposable cotton swab products, 11 wooden stick cotton swab products were tested for the strengths of their wooden sticks, and the test results revealed that in all of the 11 products, at least one to a maximum of nine of every 300 swab sticks were broken. Furthermore, it was also found that in the case where cotton swabs with paper or plastic sticks are broken, the broken ends are sharp, and so have a high chance of causing safety incidents.


    However, under the Standards and Specifications for Hygiene Products, swabs subject to the stick strength testing are confined to ones with wooden sticks, and there is also no standard for the number of test samples. Thus, if only 1~3 pieces of a swab package pass the swab stick strength testing, the entire contents of the package are determined to be appropriate for use.


    In fact, over the past three years, a total of 596 consumer injury cases related to ‘cotton swabs’ were received by the Consumer Injury Surveillance System (CISS)* under the KCA, and most of the consumer injury cases were about safety incidents associated with swab stick breaks, such as ‘getting stuck in ears or noses (428 cases, 71.8%),’ ‘getting hurt by broken swab sticks (153 cases, 25.7%),’ etc.

(2015) 207 cases (2016) 175 cases (2017) 214 cases

* The CISS (Consumer Injury Surveillance System) refers to a system to collect, analyze and assess data from 80 consumer injury information providers including 62 hospitals and 18 fire stations designated under the Framework Act on Consumers, and 1372 Consumer Counseling Center


11 products are inappropriate for labelling standards or falsely labelled.

    Meanwhile, nine products (27.3%) were inappropriate for labelling standards*, and three products (9.1%) were falsely labelled (one product was overlapped).

* The Hygiene Products Control Act was newly enacted, but the implementation of the new standards was postponed by 2020, and thus labels on cotton swabs for adults and for children were examined (8 items) based on the Electrical Appliances and Consumer Products Safety Control Act and the Special Act on Safety Management of Children’s Products, respectively.


    The nine products did not label information regarding manufacturing date, name and location of a business office, importer name, etc. And for the three products, wrong information about manufacturing countries was labelled, and formaldehyde was detected although a “No Formaldehyde” label was placed on the products. On top of that, the products were also falsely labeled as a “KCA-certified Non-defective Product.”


    Based on the product test and label examination results, the KCA requested related businesses to voluntarily recall and stop selling their problematic products, and also recommended them to improve their product labelling. In addition, the KCA plans to ask the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety to strengthen its safety management and supervision of false or exaggerated labeling and advertising, have more diverse swab stick materials tested for their stick strength, and newly develop standards for the number of test samples, establish standards to prohibit usage of formaldehyde, and make country of origin labeling mandatory.

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