Part of the problem in the United States is with cosmetics regulation itself. Despite what you might think, the FDA doesn't have great power over the composition of cosmetics — they don't test cosmetics before they go onto the market. Companies bear the bulk of safety testing because, for obvious reasons, they don't want to get sued — and if their product has problems, the FDA can only recommend a recall. "There is a real problem with the regulation of cosmetics in the United States," Conway says. "The current system for cosmetics regulation was put in place over 75 years ago and, not surprisingly, a lot has changed in the cosmetics and salon products industry since the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was passed in 1938." She points out that there's currently federal legislation, the Personal Care Products Act, that's trying to fix the problem, but it doesn't go far enough.
But for women of color, the issue goes deeper than toxic chemicals; it also harkens back to long-held racist ideals. The AJOG scientists point out that particularly toxic chemical usage comes hand in hand with products marketed specifically to the behaviors, worries and racism-induced beliefs of non-white women, and for many of them, the consequences of using toxic products are a risk worth taking. Skin-lightening creams are used because of pervasive beliefs exist across Africa and Asia about the heightened attractiveness and marriageability of lighter-skinned women. "The imagined odor of African American women was used historically as a basis for moral judgement and an attempt to control sexual behavior," the AJOG scientists explain, and link it directly to the fact that in the United States, African American women are much more likely than white women to use fragranced talc to mask normal vaginal smell, a practice that has recently been linked to cancer. Using hair relaxers to ‘tame’ natural hair ties into racist notions about presentability and professionalism that hinder Black women’s ability to access and advance in white collar occupations. “There is a good amount of data coming out of the social science literature that says that lighter skin and straighter hair actually has real material consequences for women of color,” co-author Bhavna Shamasunder told Popular Science. This data demonstrates an unfortunate fact of life of living in a society that has traditionally valued white, European traits and features.
One wonders: Would these products be allowed onto worldwide markets with such little regulation — and such poor health outcomes — if they were marketed to white women instead? It's a difficult question to answer. But it's worth remembering that studies have repeatedly reiterated the fact of the comparative invisibility of women of color, in textbooks, in social situations, in corporate settings, in the media, and across cultural and academic platforms. So it's not a stretch to argue that their health concerns are seen, consciously or unconsciously, as less of a concern to authorities.
So what can women do to protect themselves from these products? "The presence of potentially toxic chemicals in beauty products is a challenging public health problem that requires action on many different levels," lead author Dr. Ami Zota tells Bustle. She did, however, have practical suggestions. Beyond stopping the use of potentially harmful products, she said, women of color can educate themselves. If you're concerned, she said, "use online available tools such as the EWG Skin Deep website to learn more about health and safety concerns of some of their favorite products [and] advocate for safer cosmetics and more health-protective policies through consumer advocacy."
There is a drawback, however, to this method. "Asking women to simply shop their way out of the problem isn't enough," Conway explains. "Toxic chemicals in products isn't about personal choice. The 'buyer beware' approach is failing to protect public health, and it is unacceptable that chemicals linked to cancer, hormone disruption, allergies, fertility issues and more are ending up in the products." Zota tells Bustle that one of the most important things women of color can do is "initiate conversations with friends and family about societal beauty norms to help change the upstream factors that are driving product use." Shifting regulations to remove toxicity from the development of these products would be a step in the right direction, but removing the cultural constraints that mean non-white women think it's necessary to be poisoned to be successful would likely be a better one.