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Clean beauty is a movement focused on getting hidden, and often toxic, ingredients out of beauty products like lipstick and nail polish. While it’s easy to dismiss clean beauty as a celebrity driven fad, the ingredients brands choose to make the cosmetics we use everyday have real world consequences for people’s health.
For example, research finds that women of color are disproportionately exposed to harmful toxins in beauty and personal care products. Women of color spend more on beauty and personal care products such as hair straightening and relaxing treatments, skin lightening creams, and feminine cleansing and hygiene products.
It is estimated that black women, on average, purchase nine times more beauty products than white women, while Latinx women are the fastest growing group in the beauty market. As a result, exposure to chemicals in beauty and personal care products can lead to negative health outcomes for women of color.
Negative health implications associated with beauty and personal care products
Taylor Morton, the director of Environmental Health and Education for the non-profit organization WE ACT for Environmental Justice, says that exposure to toxic products leads to negative health outcomes for women of color.
“Women of color are disproportionately targeted when it comes to toxic products,” says Morton. “The health impacts can be detrimental to the reproductive system, hormones, and the nervous system.”
Many beauty and personal care products marketed to women of color contain harmful toxins such as parabens, estrogenic chemicals, formaldehyde, phthalates, lead, mercury, triclosan, and benzophenone.
In a well-known study (2017) published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, women of color who use hair relaxers and straighteners, skin lightening face creams, and feminine hygiene products are disproportionately exposed to harmful chemicals leading to negative health outcomes.
For example, the study finds that ethnic hair products used by African American women are more likely to contain placenta (a potential source of estrogen hormones) and parabens. “The use of ethnic hair products among African American women has been associated with increased risk of earlier menarche *(footnote: medical term for earlier menstrual periods) and uterine fibroid tumors,” states the study.
The researchers also note that African American women are more likely to use vaginal douches and other fragranced feminine cleansing products. According to the study, women who reported frequent douching had 150% higher exposures to diethyl phthalate, a chemical which may increase the risk of adverse health outcomes in offspring, while increasing risks of bacterial vaginosis and pelvic inflammatory disease.
Lawmakers are taking note
Fortunately, there is growing awareness, among the public and decision-makers, that exposure to harmful chemicals in beauty products leads to negative health outcomes, especially for women of color.
In 2019, Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) introduced the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act, a bill which would ban more than a dozen toxic chemicals from cosmetic products while addressing the over-exposure of underrepresented communities to chemicals in beauty and personal care products.
In addition, the federal bill would ban animal testing, close the federal labeling loophole that allows for secret, toxic chemicals to hide in cosmetic products, while holding companies accountable for the safety of ingredients in their products.
That same year Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Frank Pallone (D-NJ), introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act, a bipartisan bill which would reform the regulation of personal care products, while requiring the FDA to review the safety of cosmetics ingredients, with bans of chemicals found to be harmful.
“These bills are so important to regulating the toxic products that impact our communities,” says Morton. “All people deserve to be protected and know what ingredients are in their products, especially those who have historically had their quality of life and life expectancy impacted negatively.”
Greater corporate awareness
Companies are also getting on board, recognizing the benefits of ensuring that consumers have access to safe and healthy consumer products. Eight major retailers, including Target, CVS, and Sephora, have introduced policies to eliminate toxic chemicals from beauty products sold in their stores.
For example, in 2013, Walmart collaborated with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to create its groundbreaking chemicals policy, with a focus on household cleaners, personal care products and cosmetics. Walmart’s policy targeted ten hazardous chemicals in consumer products with the aim to replace them with safer ingredients. The policy also encouraged full ingredient transparency. In 2017, Walmart strengthened its sustainable chemicals policy by setting a goal to reduce its chemical footprint in consumer products by 10 percent by the year 2022.
Grass roots advocacy for cleaner cosmetics
Finally, we find inspiring examples of community-based organizations taking action to push for healthy and safe beauty and personal care products. In 2019, We Act! For Environmental Justice launched its “Beauty Inside Out” campaign, which focuses on raising awareness on the ways in which women of color are disproportionately exposed to harmful chemicals in beauty and personal care products. The campaign works to elevate awareness at the local, state, and federal levels with the goal to influence decision-makers and retailers to make beauty and personal care products which are safe and healthy for women of color.
The bottom line
In conclusion, while efforts have been made to reform the toxic beauty industry, there is still much work to do to ensure that women of color have access to safe and healthy beauty and personal care products. Given that the federal law to govern personal care and beauty products has remained unchanged for the over 30 years, there is a need to enact legislation, such as the Personal Care Products Safety Act, which ensures that beauty products are regulated so that all women of color have access to personal care and beauty products which are safe and healthy.