Makeup For Women Of Color Can Be Toxic, & New Research Is Finding Out Why

Ashley Batz / Bustle

Research has repeatedly indicated that women of color are at great risk of health damage from their cosmetic use, because the products that are marketed to them specifically often contain chemicals that can adversely affect health. A recent study in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology has highlighted the issue again, drawing attention to the specific racial divides in beauty product use, and how women of color find themselves particularly badly served by the cosmetics industry.

Cosmetics have contained potentially lethal compounds for an incredibly long time. From lead-based face paint popular among European women from the 16th through 19th centuries, to arsenic-based skincare regimes in the 1800s, toxic chemicals were found in the beauty regimes of the 1 percent. Nowadays, organic, toxin-free skincare is placed at a high value, and marketed — as the arsenic-laced regimes of the past once were — to wealthy, white women. Meanwhile, poor women of color have less access to this type of product, and the products that are marketed for them often contain chemicals that lead to serious health concerns. Beth Conway of the health nonprofit Women's Voices For The Earth, which focuses on how toxic environments impact women, tells Bustle, "Many products marketed to women of color, such as skin lighteners, hair relaxers and dyes, contain some of the most toxic chemicals on the market, which are known cancer-causing agents.” So why are products targeted to non-white women so toxic, and what does it reveal about the way we market and use cosmetics?

The Big Problems: Skin, Hair & Perfume

Cosmetics specifically marketed to women of color are becoming big business, after years of mainstream beauty companies ignoring the needs of women of color; witness the excitement over the Rihanna's Fenty Beauty range with 40 different foundation shades, the darkest of which have now sold out. Women of color are enthusiastic consumers of cosmetics, but it's increasingly known that the ingredients found in some products might hurt them.

The research in AJOG highlights the three areas of beauty products that place women of color at greatest risk, as well as the consequences of using them. Skin-lightening products are one of the greatest culprits, particularly for Asian women, who, as the scientists point out, spend 70 percent more than the national average on skin care. Skin-lightening creams have been at the center for a storm for a long time, and not only for the fact that they impose racist ideas about skin color on women of color worldwide. The FDA has warned against their use because of the strong likelihood that they might contain mercury. Many of these types of products are produced overseas and sold in the United States without proper permits. However, the AJOG scientists point out that mercury isn't the only issue, though it is the most serious. Skin-lightening creams can also contain hydroquinone and topical corticosteroids, which are technically only meant to treat skin conditions like eczema.

The other area of cosmetics marketed almost exclusively to women of color, particularly African American women, is hair straighteners and relaxers. Black women are around three times more likely than white women to experience uterine fibroids, and some research indicates that the chronic use of relaxers appears to be part of the cause. Relaxers contain hormonal disrupters such as parabens and the chemical placenta, and exposure to them over a lifetime, through small burns as they're administered to the scalp, may contribute to a range of gynecological issues. Conway tells Bustle, "One study showed that chemicals in hair straighteners may absorb into the scalp, and that the greatest users of these straighteners are African-American women who generally have a treatment every four to eight weeks." Use of relaxers and hair treatments has been linked to fibroids, but also to early menstruation and puberty, and higher rates of breast cancer tumors among Black women.

Even they aren't marketed specifically to women of color, though, cosmetics use can still hurt. The other area that the new research highlights is fragrance, particularly in products used for vaginal 'freshness' and intimate care, like douches and talcum powder. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics notes that Procter & Gamble has found that 22.5 percent of Black women choose a product based on fragrance, and that fragrance is also important for Latinx women. That turns into a problem, unfortunately, when the fragrances themselves prove dangerous. Fragranced douches and wipes often have high proportions of diethyl phthalate, part of a class of chemicals called phthalates which have high levels of adverse health effects. Douches themselves are poor practice for vaginal health, disturbing the pH imbalance within the vagina and creating higher risk of infection, but using scented versions of these products can cause additional poor health outcomes.

Why Is This Happening?

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.