Toxic Beauty: How The Cosmetics Industry Is Harming African American Women's Health

Toxic Beauty: How The Cosmetics Industry Is Harming African American Women's Health

Photo credit: Vonecia Carswell


Did you know women of color are disproportionately affected by beauty product-related environmental chemical exposure compared to white women?

Women of color have greater reproductive health disparities than any other group. Female-related cancers—breast and cervical combined—are the number two killer of black and brown women.

Black women are three times more likely than other races to have uterine fibroids. This is linked to our use of certain feminine hygiene products.

Sistas, it’s time to clean up our cosmetics game. I’m talking about all of the toxic chemicals we freely apply to our skin on a daily basis through our beauty products.

According to the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, exposure to these toxic chemicals during pregnancy is negatively affecting our fertility and pregnancy, neurodevelopment, and cancer.

We must scrutinize ingredient labels. Beauty products may contain phthalates and heavy metals. Disclosures of chemical ingredients are limited, inconsistent, and requirements are downright weak.

Multi-cultural beauty dominates the cosmetics industry. African American women buy more cosmetics than any other group. Nine times more to be exact. Yet, black women have lesser safe choices than mainstream cosmetics users.

Advertisers capitalize on these products through their messaging and images of mainstream beauty standards.

They play the colorism game by favoring lighter-skinned women in their ads. It’s not an oversight that richer-hued women are overlooked. I often see casting calls for white, Asian, multiracial, and ambiguous women. It’s clear what they’re doing.

Advertisers play the political hair game. They lead us to believe that if we want to look professional and be taken seriously, we have to straighten our hair. The curls, waves, and afros that naturally spring from our head is seen as unkempt, ergo, unprofessional.

These not so subtle games advertisers wage against us prompts some to use harmful skin lighteners and hair relaxers. Skin lighteners contain hydroquinone, which is an endocrine disruptor, corticosteroids and mercury. These are all worrisome ingredients that can cause neurotoxicity, mercury poisoning, and kidney damage.

Hair relaxers, which are one of the most harmful beauty products developed for African American women, contain sodium hydroxide also known as lye. You’re familiar with the burning, tingling irritation and scabs on your scalp, when the relaxer has been left on too long or you scratched your scalp prior to getting a relaxer. Hair relaxers also contain formaldehyde releasing preservatives, carcinogens, and endocrine disruptors.

These products are not the only offenders. Lipsticks, concealers, foundations, sun-protective makeup, and feminine hygiene products are guilty, too. These all increase our exposure to hazardous chemicals and potential health risks.

According to Proctor & Gamble, twenty-two percent of black women choose a product based on fragrance. Synthetic fragrances contain diethyl phthalate. It’s an endocrine disruptor, causes developmental and reproductive toxicity, and cancer. Not to mention the word ‘fragrance’ can contain solvents, stabilizers, preservatives, dyes, and UV-protectors the manufacturer does not have to disclose to protect its ‘trade secret’.

There are hundreds of potentially harmful ingredients that the US allows in its beauty products. Many are banned in the European Union (EU). Maybe it’s due to America putting profits over people. What else would explain why the US requires a high level of evidence that a substance is harmful before they take action?

I’m not advocating that you discontinue use of your cosmetics. I’m advocating that you read ingredient labels carefully. Make yourself aware of the most troubling ingredients and choose healthier replacements.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.