REACH Compliance & Restricted Chemicals When Importing from China

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REACH is an EU regulation restricting chemicals, heavy metals and pollutants in all products. Products that contain excessive amounts of restricted substances, such as lead or AZO dyes, are illegal to import and sell within the single market.

In this article, I explain how you can determine if REACH testing is necessary for your products, and the steps you must take to properly ensure compliance.

What is REACH?

REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and restriction of CHemicals) is a European Union regulation, addressing the production, importing and sales of chemical substances or finished products containing chemical substances.

Well, that’s pretty much everything. As an importer based in an EU country, this means that you are responsible for ensuring the compliance of your products. The responsibility can never be shifted to your Chinese supplier.

The purpose of REACH is to limit human and environmental exposure to certain chemicals (especially those considered highly toxic). While many products are allowed to contain certain chemicals, the amounts are limited. Currently, REACH restricts the usage of more than 1000 chemicals.

Prior to REACH, there were five different chemical directives in Europe. Now they’re all covered by one standard. This certainly makes it easier to ensure compliance.

Which products must be REACH compliant?

REACH restricts the chemicals, heavy metals and pollutants in all consumer products sold in the European Union. As such, REACH is applicable to these product categories:

  • Apparel and textiles
  • Watches and accessories
  • Home and furniture
  • Kitchen utensils
  • Electronics
  • Packaging

REACH sets substance limits and bans on so-called Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC). Additional substances are added on a yearly basis to the list of SVHCs.

Products that contain excessive amounts of certain substances are not REACH compliant, and should therefore not be imported and sold within the European Union.

That said, REACH compliance testing is not always mandatory. Yet, the authorities perform checks to control whether products sold in the EU are REACH compliant. This is also why we always recommend EU importers to get their products lab tested.

The same thing goes for importers selling on Amazon in the EU. Amazon tends to be even stricter than the authorities when it comes to checking that products are compliant, and may request test reports without any prior warning. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

How do I assess which SVHCs my product should be tested for?

You rarely need to make this assessment on your own. Instead, I recommend that you ask an accredited lab testing company, such as SGS or Asiainspection.com, to make this assessment for you.

This is also what makes REACH so easy to deal with for importers. Rather than trying to keep up with hundreds of restricted substances, you only need to ensure compliance with the REACH regulation. In other countries and markets, things are not as simple.

Most Chinese suppliers cannot demonstrate REACH compliance

Can every single Chinese manufacturer ensure REACH compliance? Absolutely not. Most suppliers have hardly even heard of REACH. There’s only one way to determine whether a supplier is able to comply with REACH testing: ask them to provide a test report of a previous batch.

Keep in mind that a REACH test report is only valid for the specific batch that was tested. A company (i.e. a Chinese manufacturer) cannot be “REACH certified”, nor can a line of products.

In practice, this means that a previous test report is not a guarantee for compliance. Instead, it serves as a good indication that the supplier is capable of manufacturing products compliant with REACH. Yet, you cannot use an old REACH test report to demonstrate compliance for your own products.

Assessing whether Chinese factories can make REACH compliant products remains a difficult task even to this day. This is primarily due to the fact that most suppliers procure materials from a wide network of subcontractors – many of which have no chemical or heavy metals records at all.

The scary truth is that they simply don’t know what their materials contain. Or, they rather not tell you.

REACH lab testing testing

Testing a product for REACH compliance requires a high level of expertise and sophisticated laboratory equipment. Most importers and their Chinese suppliers possess neither. Therefore third-party lab testing is the only way to find out if your products are REACH compliant.

If REACH testing is critical, then a product or material sample shall be sent to a lab for testing, prior to the shipment. These international labs have offices in China and do REACH compliance testing:

  • SGS
  • Bureau Veritas
  • Intertek
  • Asiainspection.com
  • TÜV

As with all product testing, a successful REACH compliance test is not to be taken for granted when importing from China. Therefore the balance payment shall be withheld until the test report is delivered.

What can I do with a test report?

A REACH test report lists all chemicals and heavy metals included in the test, and whether any of them were detected. Hopefully, all you’ll see is ‘ND’, meaning that the substance was not detected. This is a sample test report:

REACH test report

REACH test report (sample)

The test report can be used to demonstrate that your products are verified as REACH compliant, in case of market surveillance authorities or Amazon would request such proof at some point in the future.

When REACH compliance lab testing fails

The outcome of a lab test can sometimes be rather unpredictable. I learned this lesson the hard way back in 2012. We managed an order of PVC plastics for an EU customer. The PVC plastics were intended to be used for toys. PVC plastics contain several hazardous substances and therefore REACH compliance is critical.

We did it by the book. We informed the supplier that we required this batch of PVC plastics to be REACH compliant (PVC can be manufactured in compliance with various standards, among them, REACH) and ordered them to start production.

Three weeks later, I arrived in Hong Kong after a trip to Europe. About the same time as I got my passport stamped, one colleague in Shanghai called me up and told me that SGS delivered the test report the same morning.

That test report ruined what would otherwise have been a nice late summer day in Hong Kong. The testing failed. One chemical, out of more than the 100 that were tested, exceeded the limit by a narrow 1.5%.

The batch didn’t pass the test.

Thus, it was not REACH compliant and using it for toys would’ve been illegal.

What made things slightly worse was that the products were already on the ocean. The cargo was loaded only a day or two before the lab test was completed. While this is plain stupid, the client placed the order far too late and simply ‘couldn’t wait’ for the lab test to come through.

In most cases, the importer would have paid the supplier in full by the time the cargo is loaded. That fact that the balance payment was not paid up saved both us and the client. Besides, the sales agreement already included terms on how to handle such a situation.

In the end, the supplier agreed to remake the batch.

This supplier is a reputable PVC manufacturer in China.

They have a record of flawless REACH, 3GP and 6GP compliance. Later on, they tracked the issue down to an uncleaned component in one of the machines. The plastics were “contaminated” by a machine lubricant during production.

There is no way to “remake” or “repair” a product that is not REACH compliant. If non-compliance is discovered after the cargo has departed from China, you’ll likely lose your entire investment.

Do you need help to ensure compliance with all mandatory safety standards?

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    7 Responses to “REACH Compliance & Restricted Chemicals When Importing from China”

    1. chemsafetypro February 16, 2015 at 6:17 am #

      Thanks for the article. Just to let you know, Chinese suppliers also need to comply with many localchemical regulations in China.

      – Mr. pro.

    2. Boris C. April 16, 2015 at 6:53 am #

      Hi Fredrik

      Have you ever imported products made of geniune leather, PU and other types of it?
      I am intersted to hear about your experience with importing products that have this material as part of their composition.

      My questions have been so far is if there is something to be aware of when sourcing geniune leather and if there are certain things one must to follow to ensure leather is geniune indeed and not fake leather. I noticed that international consumers who buy from Chinese online stores like DX, TinyDeal (sound familiar?) often complain about unpleasant smells of resins and leather. In fact I myself when bough knock off Razer mousepad experienced this and many users recommended letting it air outside to lose that smell.

      I also noticed on Alibaba some suppliers mention “Italy leather” which I have no idea why is it called that, except that it is a type of PU leather. Do you think one can learn and acquire expertise in differentiating between geniune, PU leather and other types of it instead of hiring garment expert? On the other hand, it may be better idea to hire leather specialized expert since he can inspect finalized product for unpleasant smell which probably would tell that wither low-grade raw material was used or/and some non-compliant material was involved in composition which may actually be banned in countries requiring compliance.

      • Fredrik Grönkvist April 24, 2015 at 5:54 am #

        Hello Boris,

        Yes, we have helped client with PU leather production. However, I cannot comment on DX and Tiny Deal. I think what you find there is “Taobao products”, made for the Chinese market. We are working with manufacturers, rather than online traders. I am not surprised about these results as I don’t think such products are tested at all. As for “Italy leather”, it’s not a type of PU I am familiar with. However, I know that some leather (e.g. used in watch straps) is imported from Italy. As for classification of leather types, yes I think you need an expert for that.

        • Boris C. April 24, 2015 at 6:36 am #

          I have been buying leather strap for personal watch a few times because soon it gets torn despite local sellers (Israel) telling me that I am buying authentic leather. I am kind of tired of them fooling me but it might also be due to their lack of knowledge though. It looks like one has to be expert to tell real leather from fake like you said.

          With that in mind do you think it would be good idea to use inspector specializing on leather? I don’t know if you are familiar with these inspection firms but I have found RichForth and Front-Line Enterprise Management (F-QC) on Alibaba to be in low cost category. I contacted first and they seemed to be Chinese speaking English however after contacting TUV the representative seemed to be Chinese judging by inconsistencies in English writing. Maybe those companies have English speaking Chinese reps in their China branches but I wonder which firm would be more likely to have qualified leather expert inspector. Judging by price I would say TUV but who knows but TUV can be more likely to have inspectors less prone to “social corruption”.

    3. Carlin 3 January 11, 2017 at 5:26 pm #

      Hi there guys,

      I know i’m a bit late to this but i’m very new to the imports and exports business and i’m trying to learn all I can. I was hoping you could answer something for me:

      I’m planning to start a business and will be importing goods from China to France.

      Can you please provide information regarding the following:
      We will be specifically importing
      – LED lights,
      – polyurethane expanding foam and
      – PVC pipes from China.
      I’m reading that we may have some troubles with the customs but i dont see any real informaiton as to what exactly these problems may be. Can you please tell me exactly what those troubles may be if any. To be more specific, can you tell how long this will take to pass the goods at the customs through and how much this will cost? How could we minimize the troubles?

      I hope you can help.

      Thanks,
      Barry

    4. Abraham Lincoln February 19, 2017 at 2:47 pm #

      Hi
      Much interested in this article. I am from India and wonder how Chineese companies do
      REACH registration for their Indian customers who use these chinese chemicals for further formulation.
      Kindly advise.
      Regards
      Abraham

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