Women of Color Are Bearing the Brunt of a Toxic Beauty Industry

Inconclusive science and social pressures are putting women's health at risk.

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Aug 17 2017, 6:30pm

Image: Shutterstock

If you walk into the hair care aisle of a pharmacy or convenience store, you're likely to find a special section dedicated to women of color. It's no secret that beauty, skin, and hair products are targeted toward specific demographics, depending on their formula and brand.

It's not just the branding, however, that's different. Because of social pressure and cultural norms, women of color are applying a greater number of—and more toxic—products to their bodies than their white counterparts, according to a commentary published on Wednesday in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology. And while the research is still scarce—the impact of beauty products on women of color has long been ignored by the scientific community—the chemicals in certain creams and conditioners have been linked to cancer and reproductive health problems, these authors note.

"Compared with white women, women of color have higher levels of beauty product–related environmental chemicals in their bodies, independent of socioeconomic status," authors Ami Zota and Bhavna Shamasunder, public health researchers at George Washington University and Occidental College, wrote.

This is largely because of societal pressures to adhere to beauty standards that typically embody a white, European aesthetic. Dark-skinned populations around the globe—including Asians and Latinos—are more likely to use skin-lightening products, the authors wrote. These products can contain mercury (banned in the US), which is linked to loss of vision and kidney damage. Women with certain hair textures—usually African American women in the US—use straightening products that frequently include parabens, which have been connected with uterine fibroid tumors and premature puberty.

The European Union bans hundreds of substances that the US continues to allow

"I grew up using hair relaxers, and I come from the Caribbean which is a place where skin lighteners are popular," Patrice Yursik, a popular natural hair blogger, told me. "When I started by my blog [Afrobella] it was because I wasn't using these harsh chemicals anymore."

The US does regulate beauty products and their ingredients to an extent—companies are meant to comply with federal standards, though cosmetics don't need FDA approval. Hair and makeup formulas are evaluated for poisonous substances, but the laws aren't foolproof. The European Union bans hundreds of substances that the US continues to allow, and the FDA doesn't have the authority to directly recall harmful products.

"The cosmetics law was introduced in 1938 and it hasn't been updated since then," Nneka Leiba, a director at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, pointed out to me. "Congress needs to give them more authority and more of that power."

Plus, not all of the chemicals come from potions and shampoos. In a previous study by Zota, one of the commentary authors, she and her team found that many women also feel the pressure to change their natural odors, and use vaginal douches that can expose their bodies to phthalates. Although the CDC says that human health effects from low exposure to these chemicals are "unknown," some studies have suggested they are linked to certain kinds of cancer and hormonal disruptions. Black women reported douching at three or four times the rate of white or Mexican American women.

Deciding what constitutes a toxic chemical is not simple—which is why a whole faux industry has been built around so-called detoxes. In many instances, the classification has to do with a threshold beyond which a certain substance is considered harmful, and how it is absorbed by the body.

"The problem with all environmental chemicals is that the causal link is not the most apparent," Leiba said. "You can't say 'this' definitively caused 'this'."

Read More: A Former Naturopath Told Us How She Sold a Detox Scam

In the past few years, there has been a shift in the way that women of color look at their beauty products. There has been a movement toward natural hair, in which more Black women are choosing not to use straightening products and hair color. And there is a greater general awareness about what goes into our skin care products.

Yursik said women of color have become increasingly aware of the chemicals they are using, whether mineral oils, parabens, or silicon, and use these online forums to sift through the science and research and find less harmful products.

"It came not from a movement to wear your hair in a particular style, but to be more aware of what you put in your hair and how you present your beauty to the world," she said.

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