These Beauty Products Are Extra-Hazardous for Women of Color
Photo by Geoff Livingston
As if it weren’t bad enough that makeup companies rarely offer enough shades for
women of color, a new review found that women of color also
face the greatest risks of unsafe chemical exposures from
personal care products.
Three years ago, I made a trip to Sephora with one specific
purpose in mind: to search for the…
The paper is titled The Environmental Injustice of
Beauty, and points out that we usually look for clusters of
chemical exposure on the basis of geography: who lives near a
polluting factory, for example, or a busy road. But often
people of color are in these more dangerous areas, and
are the target market for beauty products with potentially
dangerous ingredients. These are the worst offenders:
Face Creams Containing Mercury
Photo from the FDA, which warns consumers
not to use certain brands of face cream, including this one.
Skin lightening creams, sometimes labeled as being for “spot
correction” or for “blemishes”, can contain mercury. The FDA
regulates mercury content in products sold here, but face
creams made elsewhere (brought from overseas or sold here
illegally) can contain shockingly high amounts of mercury.
For example, one study traced a California woman’s high mercury
exposure to face cream she bought in
Mexico. And in a study of mercury exposure in New York
City, Dominicans who used face lightening creams had the
highest levels of mercury in their urine. As part of that
study, the researchers found 12 imported products being sold
illegally in local stores despite high mercury content.
Yes, mercury poisoning has been
linked to mercury-containing beauty products. Mercury can
cause damage to your kidneys and nervous system. And if you’re
pregnant, mercury in your system can interfere with your baby’s
development (especially brain development).
These mercury-containing creams tend to be marketed
specifically to darker-skinned women, with advertising that sells the
idea that lighter skin means you’ll be prettier and more
professional. So not only do they put women of color at risk
specifically because of the color of their skin, they
also do so in service of an idea that is explicitly colorist and racist.
Hair Relaxers With Endocrine Disruptors
Relaxers, straighteners, and other hair products often include
ingredients that mimic or contain estrogen. For example,
animal placenta supposedly
nourishes skin and hair, but also contains estrogen and
other hormones. And parabens, used as preservatives, can mimic
estrogen in the body.
We don’t have clear evidence proving a link between these
ingredients and health outcomes; for example, the FDA tentatively considers parabens
in cosmetics to be safe, but they are keeping an eye out
for new studies. That said, there is circumstantial
evidence—not proof, but hints—linking breast cancer to
African-American women’s use of hair products, and
specifically estrogen-containing ones.
Black women are far more likely than white women to use
straighteners, and to use a larger number of hair products in
general. And at least part of this discrepancy is to comply
with dress codes or stereotypes of straight, smooth hair as
more beautiful or professional.
Douches and Other Feminine Hygiene Products
Yep, this one disproportionately affects black women too,
thanks to stereotypes and marketing that
portrayed them as dirty and smelly. Even today, black women
are more likely than white women to use douches, wipes, and
talcum powder in or near their vagina.
These products have potential links to cancer and health
problems. The evidence connecting talc use to
ovarian cancer is mixed. The authors of the environmental
injustice paper point out that women who douche have higher
levels of phthalates in their body, but phthalates aren’t conclusively linked to
cancers or other health concerns.
Even besides chemical concerns, there’s the fact that douching just isn’t good for you.
It messes with the natural bacteria that live in your vagina,
and can lead to irritation or infection.
Simply dropping these products, if you use them, is easier said
than done. For one thing, the potentially problematic chemicals
aren’t always listed on labels in a way that lets you easily
discern what’s safe and what’s not. In the big picture, risk
may really just boil down to the number and amount of products
women of color use.
But in the even bigger picture, these products are popular
among women of color because of racist ideas of what counts as
beautiful, professional, or acceptable. And so, for example,
skin lightening creams won’t go away until preference for light
skin goes away.