Black Women May Be Exposed to More Harmful Cosmetic Chemicals

Grace Gold
Contributing Writer
With less choice in the cosmetics aisle, black women have a higher risk of products with dangerous chemicals. (Photo: Getty Images)

A new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) suggests that women of color are using more beauty products containing potentially hazardous chemicals than other consumers.

The EWG’s Skin Deep database — which allows users to search products that are rated on a toxicity scale from one to 10 — has added 1,177 personal-care products marketed to black women. And while the percentage of “high hazard” products is about the same as the general public, fewer than 25 percent of products for black women scored low (or “safer”) on the scale, as compared with 40 percent marketed to the general public. This suggests that there’s less choice for black women, who may be buying more chemically laden products.

And while African-Americans comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, their spending accounts for as much as 22 percent of the $42 billion personal-care products industry, according to the report, which also suggests that black women buy and use more products with potentially harmful ingredients than Americans as a whole.

In categories of hair relaxers, hair color, lipstick, concealer, foundation, and sun-protective makeup, none of the products analyzed scored as “low hazard,” according to the report. And the worst of the worst are all in the hair product category — relaxers, dyes, and bleachers all had average rankings at the highest risk.

The report comes as no surprise, says Ni’Kita Wilson, cosmetic chemist and founder of Skinects V-VI, a beauty resource for women of color. “Everyone is aware of the hazards of relaxers — chemical burns are real!” she tells Yahoo Beauty. “At the end of the day, it seems to come down to fragrance, retinyl palmitate (a derivative of vitamin A), and preservatives, along with highly irritating products like relaxers and hair dye — this report reveals the obvious,” she adds.

Scientific testing on products marketed to black women has also been lacking; most of what exists has focused mainly on the two chemical hair-straightening groups of products known as relaxers and texturizers, which contain ingredients like lye that break down chemical bonds in hair so locks can be reshaped. Advocacy groups cite studies linking chemical straighteners to baldness and increased risk of noncancerous growths in the uterus; and among pregnant women, premature birth and low infant birth weight.

Among other products like face creams, body lotions, and hair conditioners marketed to black women, the report says many show potentially harmful ingredients that mimic the effects of the hormone estrogen. While this is a common issue cited for the general population as well on the database, the EWG report points to studies that show African-Americans had higher urinary concentrations of parabens than the general population. According to the EWG, parabens are the potentially hormone-disrupting chemicals often used as preservatives in personal-care products. Again, this suggests that women of color are disproportionally exposed.

In response to the bigger social issue of the higher exposure rates of African-Americans to chemicals, from beauty products to food and the environment, organizations like Black Women for Wellness, West Harlem Environmental Action, and Women’s Voices for the Earth have recently launched as both advocates and consumer resources.

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