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The environmental injustice of beauty

‘Women of colour have higher levels of beauty product-related chemicals in their bodies’
The environmental injustice of beauty

Women of colour have higher levels of beauty product-related chemicals in their bodies than white women, according to a commentary published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

The authors say even small exposures to such toxic chemicals can lead to health problems.

‘Pressure to meet Western standards of beauty means Black, Latina and Asian American women are using more beauty products and thus are exposed to higher levels of chemicals known to be harmful to health. Beauty product use is a critical but underappreciated source of reproductive harm and environmental injustice.’

Assistant professor of environmental and occupational health, Milken Institute SPH, George Washington University

A $400bn industry

The authors point out that the beauty product industry is estimated to bring in more than $400 billion globally. They also say that previous studies have documented that Black, Latina and Asian-American women spend more on beauty products than the national average, often because of marketing practices that emphasise a European standard of beauty.

For example, women of colour buy products, including skin-lightening face cream, which often contain hidden ingredients such as topical steroids or the toxic metal mercury, Zota says.

Black women are known to suffer more anxiety about having ‘bad hair’ and are twice as likely to experience social pressure to straighten their hair. Hair products like straighteners or relaxers are likely to contain oestrogen and can trigger premature reproductive development in young girls and possibly uterine tumours, the commentary says.

Hidden chemicals

Other studies show that beauty and personal care products contain multiple hidden chemicals that are linked to endocrine, reproductive or development toxicity. They can be especially dangerous for women age 18 to 34, the authors say. Women in this age group are known to be heavy buyers, purchasing more than 10 types of beauty product per year. These women and their offspring may experience heightened vulnerability to these chemicals, especially if exposure occurs during sensitive periods such as pregnancy.

Marketing efforts have also encouraged Black women to use shower products that carry messages about uncleanliness and odours. A study done by Zota and colleagues in 2016 found that, in a national sample of reproductive age women, those who reported showering frequently had 150% higher exposures to a harmful chemical known as DEP. This chemical, often found in fragranced beauty products, may cause birth defects in babies and has also been linked to health problems in women, Zota says.

Disproportionate exposure

At the same time, research suggests that low-income women of colour are more likely to live in an environment with high levels of pollutants contaminating the air, soil and water. As a result they may also be exposed to toxic chemicals simply by living in a more polluted home or neighbourhood.

‘For women who live in already polluted neighborhoods, beauty product chemicals may add to their overall burden of exposures to toxic chemicals. Certain racial/ethnic groups may be systematically and disproportionately exposed to chemicals in beauty products since factors such as institutionalized racism can influence product use.’

Assistant professor in the Urban and Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College

In the commentary, the co-authors warn that multiple exposures to chemicals in beauty products and in the environment add up and can interfere with healthy reproduction and development.

Health professionals can advance environmental justice, they say, by being prepared to counsel their patients about the risks of exposures to hidden chemicals in beauty products. The authors add that health care providers and researchers should call for health protective policies such as improved testing and disclosure.

‘The Environmental Injustice of Beauty: Framing Chemical Exposures from Beauty Products as a Health Disparities Concern’ appears online in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

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