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Toxic personal care products are harming women of colour

Speaking on the possible health risks associated with cosmetics, Assistant Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at the George Washington University Milken Issue School of Public Health, Ami R. Zota made an incredibly impactful statement on the toxicity of beauty products for women of colour in particular. Zota explained that that there are many phthalates and parabens found in fragranced lotions, body washes, hair, and nail care products and that the“pressure to meet Western standards of beauty means Black, Latina and Asian American women are using more beauty products”. 

Assistant Professor Ami Zota speaking at congressional briefing

Research shows that Black women spend twice as much on beauty products and services than any other ethnic group, and the products aimed towards women of colour contain higher levels of harmful chemicals. These women are therefore exposed to higher levels of chemicals which are known to be harmful to health. Zota also mentions that “women of colour are more likely to buy products like skin lightening face cream, which often contain hidden ingredients such as topical steroids or the toxic metal mercury”.

Tracey Woodruff, director of the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, worked on a study that focused on chemicals that pregnant women are exposed to due to cookware, processed foods and personal care products. Woodruff states that these exposures can cause adverse health risks such as preterm birth and birth defects, childhood morbidity, and adult disease and mortality. The study also found an association between phthalates and feminine hygiene products such as tampons, sanitary napkins, feminine sprays and wipes, and vaginal douching. 

Vaginal douching, in particular, has been featured in many studies that show it is associated with high levels of metabolite (a harmful break down chemical in diethyl phthalate) in women’s urine. Zota mentions that “this chemical is often found in fragranced beauty products and could cause birth defects in babies and has also been linked to health problems in women”. Compared to white women, Black women have higher rates of vaginal douching and are therefore at higher risk. 

Social pressure can also put young girls at risk. Black women often have anxiety around their natural hair and might be pressured into straightening it due to Western-Eurocentric beauty standards. Products such as hair relaxers and straighteners often contain estrogen and can trigger premature reproductive development and uterine tumours in young girls. They also contain lye, an ingredient which breaks down chemical bonds in the hair, causing hair loss. 

The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology mentioned that even “small exposures to toxic chemicals during critical periods of development, such as pregnancy, can trigger adverse health consequences (such as impacts on fertility and pregnancy, neurodevelopment and cancer).” To add to this, preservatives like parabens have been linked to diminished fertility, lowered thyroid levels and other reproductive problems. 

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organisation that is working towards finding healthier and safer solutions for the health of others and the environment, has been researching the lack of safe ingredients in Black self-care products. EWG has noted the popularity growth of natural hair styles as well as natural hair products and say that while ‘natural’ products are presumed to have fewer toxic ingredients, the EWG states “many of these products still contain potentially harmful ingredients”. 

EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database is a great resource for finding alternative products that contain less-hazardous chemicals. EWG compares more than 60 databases and scientific studies and rates the products from 1 (lowest hazard) to 10 (highest hazards) as well as verifying certain products. A verified product;  does not have certain ingredients that could negatively affect your health or the environment, is fully transparent with its ingredients (including fragrances), and the manufacturers have followed current manufacturing practices to further ensure the safety of their products.  

EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database

EWG has even created an app so that consumers are able to scan products to find reviews and see if it contains problematic chemicals so that they can make healthier purchases. 

These issues show just how dangerous beauty standards can be and why we need to be more aware of their impact on the health of women of colour. 

Let us know what you think in the comments below, we’d love to hear about the natural beauty products that you use!  

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