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REACH compliance & restricted chemicals when importing from China

by Fredrik Grönkvist



What about chemical substances when importing from China? If you happen to be based in the European Union, you better listen up. A diverse range of products, including furniture, toys and plastics, are required to be compliant with the REACH directive. In this article we explain how you can determine if REACH testing is necessary, and how you can 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. Sounds complicated? As an importer, you basically need to know two things:

a.) Whether your product is required to be REACH compliant
b.) Whether your Chinese supplier is capable of manufacturing REACH compliant products (this is NOT to be taken for granted)

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.

Products required to be REACH compliant

REACH restricts the usage of chemicals in products. Well, the problem is that every single thing made out of atoms contains chemicals. Does this mean that every single product imported from China to Europe is tested for REACH compliance? No, that is not the case. So, when does it make sense to send a product for REACH testing? When is it really important to know if a product is compliant?

Basically, a product that is exposing the user to chemicals should be tested for REACH compliance. This includes, but is not limited, to the following products and categories:

  • Food containers
  • Rubber products
  • Plastic products
  • PVC plastics
  • Toys
  • Printing ink
  • Color pigment
  • Neoprene colors
  • Glues
  • Tires
  • Cables
  • Plates, pipes and tubes
  • Furniture
  • Textiles, footwear and leather

It can be hard to determine whether a product should be tested for REACH compliance. Another option is to determine the need for testing based on the contained chemicals. Products likely to contain any of the following hazardous substances should be lab tested:

  • Lead
  • AZO dyes
  • DMF (Dimethyl fumarate)
  • PAHs (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons)
  • Phthalates (Plasticizers)
  • PFOS (Perfluorooctanoic acid)
  • Nickle release

Textiles and AZO dyes

Since February 2013, the EU has expanded the REACH directive to include AZO dyes. AZO dyes are colorants used for producing textiles with bright, high intensity colors. These account for more than half of the worldwide produce. However, most of the banned AZO dyes have not been in use since the early 90s. A list of the banned substances can be found here.

Most Chinese suppliers are not REACH compliant!

Can every single Chinese manufacturer ensure REACH compliance? Absolutely not. Most of them have never even heard about 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 complying with the REACH directive. ,On the other hand,buying from a Chinese supplier that cannot prove former REACH compliance is too risky.

Not sure if your supplier is able to manufacture REACH compliant products? Worried about fake certificates? There’s help to get. Let us screen your supplier and verify the authenticity of their compliance documents – before it’s too late. Click here to read more.

REACH 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 3rd party lab testing is necessary. If REACH testing is critical, then a product or material sample shall be sent to a lab for testing, prior to the shipment. The following international labs have offices in China and do REACH compliance testing:

  • SGS
  • Bureau Veritas
  • Asiainspection
  • 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. Keep reading and I explain why.

When lab testing fails

The outcome of a lab test can sometimes be rather unpredictable. I learnt 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 a 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 from a business trip in good old 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 roughly 1.5%. But, compliance is not a matter of negotiation and exceptions are not made. 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.

Within hours, we negotiated a deal with Chinese supplier that offered a major discount to the client. This was acceptable, since the PVC plastics could still be used for industrial and construction applications. However, if this was not the case, the only option would’ve been to push for a full refund. Also, if the products are paid in full when something like happens, the supplier doesn’t have much of an incentive to compensate you. This is why it’s critical to withhold the balance payment until the lab testing is completed.

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.

Fredrik Grönkvist is the co-founder of ScandinAsian Enterprise in Shanghai. Since 2010, he and his team have helped hundreds of companies worldwide, primarily in the EU and US, to develop and manufacture products in China. He is also the main contributor on, a leading knowledge base for small- to medium-sized enterprises importing from Asia. For further questions, you can contact him on

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