A Tale of Two Worlds: Fighting for Safe Cosmetics as Both a Women’s Health Advocate and a Makeup Artist

Growing up, my family and I would adorn our faces and tresses by going to specialized ethnic beauty supply stores for our hair care and cosmetic needs. I always thought of these places as a trusted source in our community. I never realized that many of the products we bought could be doing us lasting harm.

For as long as I can remember, the standard of beauty has always been depicted as a slender white woman with pore-less, dewy skin, thick flowing hair, and a brilliantly bright smile. The products marketed on my favorite television shows and commercials all teased the possibility of achieving these unrealistic standards. Beauty supply stores were full of black and brown smiling faces promising longer hair, lighter skin, and smoother complexions through makeup application. These products were tools to recreate these idolized white representations. There were very few discussions of toxic ingredients in the early 1990s, especially in communities of color. These products were recommended by grandmothers to their grandchildren, deemed necessary to continue generational standards of beauty.

Let’s get personal

It was the summer before fourth grade and as my mother talked about reproduction, I questioned her about why my body was changing so soon. I started my menstrual cycle at the age of 8 years old. I knew an early cycle was possible based on my family history, but I could not imagine it was happening to me. Surely I understood it was not a bad thing, but I questioned the cause. Did I do something wrong to make my period start sooner than my white classmates? As two decades passed, the question resurfaced. When I heard the news of our expanded NWHN project on regulating cosmetic and personal care products, I knew there was a strong connection to black and brown people. After reading tons of articles and reviews in research, it dawned on me. Was the early onset of my menstrual cycle due to personal care products?

After reading lists of products marketed to black women and girls, I realized it was definitely a possibility. Many of the products trusted by my grandmother, mom, sister, cousins, and aunts for decades were full of toxic ingredients. Again, these aesthetic staples were recommended by old generations as the gold seal, greatly branded and sold in these community beauty stores. But ongoing research suggests that there are reasons to suspect that alopecia, early menstruation, fibroids, cysts, and other reproductive health problems could be linked to these products.

The Makeup Industry

When I chose to pursue my passion as a part-time makeup artist, one of my first action-items was deciding which products I would include in my kit. As a cystic acne survivor, I am mindful of the products I use on my clients and I always pay close attention to the ingredients to ensure all the cosmetic products will work on all skin types.

Considering myself a beauty advocate, I educate my clients, and try to remove toxic ingredients from my makeup kit. But current laws put the burden on individual consumers and artists instead of ensuring safe products to everyone. Many women closely read nutrition labels and critically examine the ingredient lists for foods they ingest, yet they do not practice these same precautions with personal care products. I express to my clients the importance of reading the labels since some ingredients may lead to breakouts, irritation, hyper-pigmentation and even long-term detrimental effects on their health, like cancer. But without requiring companies to list all of their ingredients, only use safe ingredients, and ensure that their products aren’t contaminated along the way, there’s only so much individuals can do. We need reforms that protect everyone. I’m fighting not just for my clients, but for myself as well.

I challenge you to look beyond what past and present beauty standards are presented to us. I implore you to ask yourself if this generational beauty product is best for your personal care or was it the only option available for your ancestors. I encourage you to be willing to step out of the makeup trends and really assess how to do it best, as I do the same.

Kalena Murphy is a former Senior State Advocacy Manager for the NWHN’s Raising Women’s Voices initiative. Always focused on expanding health access for marginalized groups, Kalena previously served as chair of the Enroll West Michigan coalition, where she was personally recognized by the Obama Administration for Affordable Care Act outreach.

Read more from Kalena Murphy.