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When you think about harmful chemicals, you might imagine a hazardous waste site or water contamination. Toxic chemicals also lurk in the food we eat and products we use every day.
Who knew that ingredients in beauty and personal care products could impact your health? The issue of toxic chemicals in these products is an equity issue. Beauty and personal care products marketed to women of color often contain more toxic chemicals than those marketed to white women.
What these ingredients do to our bodies
- Ingredients in some hair care products commonly used by Black women, such as hair lotion, leave-in conditioners, root stimulators and hair oil, have been found to contain ingredients that disrupt hormonal activity.
- There is a 40% greater risk of early onset periods — an indicator for heightened breast cancer risk — for women who used hair oil or hair perm treatments as children.
- In one study, Dominican women who used skin lightening creams had up to 30 times higher levels of mercury in their bodies.
- The levels of diethyl phthalate, a common fragrance ingredient, and methyl paraben, a preservative, are 80% and 100% higher in African Americans than white Americans, respectively.
The color of your skin or the texture of your hair should not put you at greater risk of exposure to toxic chemicals.
Bringing attention to what beauty justice means
This toxic beauty inequity has flown under the radar for far too long, which is why educators, community advocates and clean beauty influencers are speaking out.
Public health researchers are expanding the body of knowledge around the links between certain toxic chemical exposures and disease, as well as the root causes of exposure.
For instance, research by environmental health experts show that one’s exposure to toxic chemicals through personal care products can be driven by where you live, where you work and cultural norms. Factors like these can impact the long-term well-being of individuals and entire communities.
Organizations like the Resilient Sisterhood Project are helping Black women understand reproductive diseases that disproportionately affect them, the links to chemical exposures and opportunities for action. And beauty influencers are leveraging their platforms to build awareness among beauty enthusiasts.
But to achieve clean beauty justice, we need policymakers and companies to respond to this pressure and drive real change in the beauty industry.
‘Clean beauty’ efforts neglect women of color
In late 2022, Congress passed the Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act, the first major update to the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act in 84 years. While the passage of the bill breaks the historical impasse on the regulations of the industry, more work is needed to put policies in place that further protect communities of color. While efforts on beauty justice cosmetic legislation continue, some companies like Credo, Sephora and Target have committed to sell beauty products without harmful ingredients and with lower environmental footprints — what publicly has been referred to as “clean beauty.”
These efforts are a step in the right direction when it comes to cleaning up the beauty aisle. We also need to ensure more clean beauty options are available for women of color.
Here’s what companies can do right now
Putting an end to this toxic reality requires getting brands and retailers to put racial equity front and center in their clean beauty efforts.
And they need to ensure that clean beauty products are available, accessible and affordable for every single customer.
Companies can do this by ensuring their chemicals policies include a specific, time-bound commitment to address equity, while also working to increase supply chain transparency, disclose product information to consumers, and prioritize chemical safety in designing products marketed to people of color.
Beauty should not cost us our health. We need clean beauty justice. Take a stand with us at cleanbeautyjustice.org.