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.
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
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.