Are Holi Colors Safe?

indian women throwing colored holi powder

The Bottom Line

Holi is a colorful spring Hindu festival. Part of the celebration is throwing brightly colored powders into the air and onto others. These powders should be from safe and natural sources, but some contain metals and other potentially dangerous substances. Safely enjoy your Holi celebrations by covering your skin, eyes, nose, and mouth.

indian holi colors at market

The Full Story

Holi is a joyous annual Hindu festival that marks the arrival of spring. The festival includes celebrants throwing brightly colored powders into the air and onto each other. Holi colors, called gulal in Hindi, were traditionally made from natural sources. These natural colors reportedly have short shelf lives, and it is difficult or expensive to make natural blues and greens as vibrant as newer, synthetic options. Synthetic gulal are often made of a cornstarch base with pigment provided by food, drug, and cosmetic (FD&C) grade dyes. These FD&C colors in the US are the same synthetic organic chemicals approved for use by the FDA in the products we eat, drink, and put on our bodies. There are, however, some reports of powders made from or contaminated with metal-based pigments (e.g., copper sulfate, mercury sulfide, chromium iodide, lead oxide, and aluminum bromide), industrial pigments (e.g., malachite green, methyl violet, auramine O, and rhodamine B), talc, asbestos, mica granules, or ground glass. Exposure to these contaminants can cause a wide range of health issues such as skin irritation, eye injury, and respiratory complications.

Holi participants can take steps to protect themselves from possible contaminants in the following ways:

  • Do not wear contact lenses to the festival. Instead, opt for sunglasses or eyewear that offers better protection such as goggles used for swimming or for chemistry labs.
  • Wear a well-fitting mask over your nose and mouth to minimize the amount of powder inhaled. If you inhale the powder and have difficulty breathing, move to fresh air. If the symptoms are severe or persistent seek care from a healthcare provider.
  • Wear clothes that cover your arms and legs to limit the amount of powder that reaches your skin.
  • Gently wash the powder off as soon as possible while keeping it out of your mouth and eyes.
  • In the event of an eye exposure, immediately rinse the eye for 15 minutes in water that is a comfortable temperature and a comfortable pressure. If you experience severe or persistent pain, changes in vision, or sensitivity to light, seek care from a healthcare provider immediately.

If you suspect someone has been exposed to Holi powder and is having a problem, check the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for guidance or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.

Lindsy Liu, PharmD
Certified Specialist in Poison Information

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Only purchase Holi colors from reputable sources.
  • Opt for naturally dyed powders if possible.
  • Protect your eyes. Do not wear contact lenses to the celebration; wear sunglasses or protective goggles if you can.
  • Protect your lungs by wearing a face mask over your nose and mouth.

This Really Happened

A 57-year-old man developed eye redness, excessive tearing, and a painful gritty sensation in his eyes after participating in a Holi festival 3 days earlier. He had a fever for 2 days before seeking care from a healthcare provider. He had scratches on his cornea, swelling of his eyelids and surrounding skin, and wounds with evidence of growing infection. He was treated with antibiotics, artificial tears, and reconstructive surgery (from Chauhan et al., 2007).

For More Information

Marshall J. What are the Holi colors, and what gives them such vibrant hues? Chem Eng News. 2018 26 Feb;96(9):28-9.

Singh SN. Science behind Holi, the festival of colors. Bidhan Nagar Kolkata (India): Ministry of Culture, Government of India [updated 2021 Feb 28; cited 2021 Feb 28].


References

Bernard JP. FD&C dyes: what are they? Neenah (WI): First Source Worldwide; 2017 Jul 11 [cited 2021 Mar 28].

Chauhan D, Arora R, Das S, Shroff D, Narula R. Bilateral necrotizing fasciitis following exposure to Holi colors: a case report. Indian J Ophthalmol. 2007 Sep-Oct;55(5):373–4.

Ghosh SK, Bandyopadhyay D, Chatterjee G, Saha D. The "Holi"  dermatoses: annual spate of skin diseases following the spring festival in India. Indian J Dermatol.2009 Jul-Sep;54(3):240–2.

Velpandian T, Saha K, Ravi AK, Kumari SS, Biswas NR, et al. Ocular hazards of the colors used during the festival-of-colors (Holi) in India—malachite green toxicity. J hazard Mater. 2007 10 Jan;139(2):204–8.

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Only purchase Holi colors from reputable sources.
  • Opt for naturally dyed powders if possible.
  • Protect your eyes. Do not wear contact lenses to the celebration; wear sunglasses or protective goggles if you can.
  • Protect your lungs by wearing a face mask over your nose and mouth.

This Really Happened

A 57-year-old man developed eye redness, excessive tearing, and a painful gritty sensation in his eyes after participating in a Holi festival 3 days earlier. He had a fever for 2 days before seeking care from a healthcare provider. He had scratches on his cornea, swelling of his eyelids and surrounding skin, and wounds with evidence of growing infection. He was treated with antibiotics, artificial tears, and reconstructive surgery (from Chauhan et al., 2007).