Unregulated Cosmetics, Eurocentric Beauty Standards, and the Effect on Black Women’s Health

With few exceptions, current federal law does not require cosmetics manufacturers to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration before their products go on the market. In fact, manufacturers aren’t required to list all of their ingredients, test their products, use good manufacturing practices to prevent contamination, or even recall products they know are dangerous.

In researching toxic cosmetic products, I was shocked to discover that Just For Me Shampoo, a product specifically marketed to Black girls, was the most toxic product in a study conducted by the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP).  I felt awful because I and many of my friends and family grew up using Just For Me products and I know that many other Black women have as well.

The study found that Just For Me, a kids’ shampoo made by Strength of Nature contains 24 harmful ingredients including four carcinogens, six developmental toxicants, and 19 hormone disrupting compounds. What is horrifying about the results is that out of the 32 personal care and cleaning products BCPP analyzed for harmful chemicals, Just for Me kids’ shampoo was even more toxic than the cleaning products!

In one analysis, one out of every 12 beauty and personal care products marketed to Black women was found to include “highly hazardous” ingredients, a far higher rate than products marketed to the general population. This is very concerning considering Black women use personal care products at more than twice the rate of white women!

Understanding Why Black Women Use Cosmetics More Than White Women Is a Complex Issue Rooted in Racism and Discrimination

Examining Eurocentric beauty standards placed on women may give some context to this problem.  It is no secret that society imposes strict beauty standards on women. Although things are changing, straight hair remains the standard in many workplaces and schools, both of which are fundamental to one’s ability to live, grow, and prosper in society.

In attempting to conform to such standards, Black women and girls often alter the natural texture of their hair. Historically, black hair has always represented more than its texture. The texture of African American hair is often labeled as “good hair” or “bad hair.”  The origins of these labels are a result of deep-rooted survival mechanism the Black women needed to maintain one’s place in society.

I have personally dealt with this problem many times.  During law school, I was once advised to straighten my hair for an interview because it would “look more professional.”  I did not listen to the advice but I understand why some Black women have felt the need to alter their hair under similar circumstances and the underlying issue at hand.

Black women face steep social and professional costs for having to conform to beauty standards based on European characteristics. For example, reports of Black women being fired from their workplace for wearing their natural hair or natural hairstyles and Black girls being sent home from school for wearing natural styles or braids are not uncommon.

The Hair of Black women

Black women have different hair texture, length, thickness, and porosity. The natural hair of Black woman ranges from very curly (4c) to straight (1) texture (see chart). Natural hair can be chemically altered to become straight through the use of heat (flat iron, hot comb) or chemical products such as relaxers or perms.  Applying certain perms and relaxers to our hair, however, is clearly not healthy. The ingredients in many of these products have been linked to ovarian cancer, breast cancer, early onset of puberty, fibroids and endometriosis, miscarriage, poor maternal and infant health outcomes, diabetes and obesity, and more.

It Is Evident That the FDA and Cosmetic Manufacturers Have Not Made Women’s Health a Priority.

The cosmetic industry has been mostly self-regulated for more than a century. The lack of federal oversight and regulation over toxic chemicals used in cosmetic products is appalling.  Some of the long-term health risks related to toxic cosmetics are unknown, but one thing that’s clear is this is a public health issue that cannot continue to be ignored.

M. Isabelle Chaudry, J.D., is the Senior Policy Manager for the NWHN and an advocate for marginalized communities of women. Isabelle actively lobbies and provides expert testimony before Congress and the FDA for women’s health and cosmetic policies. She is an LL.M candidate in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law and a Board Member for Women’s Voices for the Earth.

Read more from M. Isabelle Chaudry.

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