The majority of American women regularly use beauty products, but an alarming new report published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology points out that women of color have higher levels of chemicals from beauty products in their systems than white women do.
This is particularly concerning given that even small amounts of these chemicals have the potential to cause health problems, the authors of the article argue. For the commentary, Ami R. Zota, ScD, MS, an assistant professor at George Washington University, and Bhavna Shamasunder, PhD, an assistant professor at Occidental College, analyzed research on chemicals found in beauty products, including those marketed to women of color. Among other things, they discovered that women of color typically use more beauty products or certain products that contain more chemicals, such as skin-lightening creams, hair relaxers, or fragranced feminine care products such as douches. “The reasons that women use these products is complex, but Western beauty standards along with targeting advertising likely play a role,” Zota tells Yahoo Beauty.
In their paper, the authors point out that research has shown that black, Latina, and Asian-American women spend more on beauty products than the national average. Black women also are more likely to have anxiety about their hair and are twice as likely to feel societal pressure to straighten it, they say.
But hair products such as straighteners or relaxers are likely to contain chemicals like estrogen, which can increase a girl’s risk of hitting puberty early and possibly even lead to uterine tumors, the authors say. Skin-lightening cream also contains hidden ingredients, such as topical steroids or mercury, both of which can be harmful to a woman’s health. Other chemicals that are linked to endocrine, reproductive, or developmental toxicity can be found in beauty products, and these are especially dangerous for women between the ages of 18 and 34, who are known to be heavy buyers of beauty products, they say.
Zota specifically cites formaldehyde, phthalates, parabens, lead, mercury, and triclosan as chemicals of concern. “Exposure to one or more of these chemicals has been linked to endocrine disruption (or hormone disruption), cancer, reproductive harm, and even neurodevelopmental problems in children when they are exposed to chemicals in the womb,” she says.
Many people assume that the chemicals in their products have been tested for toxicity before they hit shelves, but Zota points out that this is a misconception. “In most cases, limited safety testing takes place before products are entered onto the market because the cosmetic industry is largely self-regulated,” she says.
The Food and Drug Administration does not require that cosmetic products and ingredients receive approval before they go on the market. Instead, the companies and people who market beauty products are legally responsible for ensuring the safety of their products. However, the FDA has the right to remove products from shelves.
Nneka Leiba, director for healthy living science at the Environmental Working Group, which has researched the chemicals found in beauty products marketed to women of color, tells Yahoo Beauty that users have “fewer healthier options when it comes to products marketed specifically to their demographic.” EWG’s research found that only 25 percent of the 1,177 beauty products marketed to black women that they studied fell into the “low hazard” category — while 40 percent of products that are marketed to the general public fell into this group. The products with the worst scores included hair relaxers and bleaching products. Some lipsticks, concealers, and foundations also received poor scores.
Leiba urges women of color to become educated on the issue and their individual risk level. “They may be at an increased risk because they use more of these products,” she says. Then, she says, it’s important to find out what’s actually in the products that you use (EWG has its own Skin Deep database, which breaks down chemicals found in beauty products and shows how risky they are). If a product you love is flagged as having risky chemicals, Leiba says it’s a good idea to try to find something similar that’s safer.
Zota adds it’s important for women to advocate for change and initiate conversations about beauty norms to help transform the factors that drive beauty product use. However, she admits, this isn’t an easy issue to solve. “This is a challenging public health problem that requires action on many different levels,” she says.
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