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Racist beauty standards leave communities of color more exposed to harmful chemicals: NYC study

"How do you change centuries of colonialism and racism that have always uplifted light and white skin tone and features?”

Racist beauty standards are driving the use of beauty products that are often contaminated with chemicals that alter the human endocrine system, cause organ damage, and spur cancer in communities of color, according to new research.

Chemical straighteners and skin lighteners — beauty products frequently used among Black and Asian Americans —sometimes contain harmful ingredients such as formaldehyde, mercury and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and have been linked to health problems such as uterine and breast cancer, kidney and nervous system damage and more. New research published today in Environmental Justice shows the use of these potentially toxic products is spurred by racialized beauty standards.

“Beauty norms that glorify European features do impact product use,” Lariah Edwards, an environmental health researcher at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and a lead author on the study, told EHN. Examples of these European features include straight hair and light or white skin.

As part of a collaboration between the New-York-City-based environmental justice advocacy group WE ACT and various universities, researchers surveyed 297 women and femme-identifying individuals in Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx about their past and current use of chemical straighteners and skin lighteners. Researchers asked participants whether family members and peers commented on hairstyles or skin tone.

The study found that perceptions of others’ beliefs about beauty was an important driver of product use — respondents who perceived that others around them thought light skin makes women look more beautiful were more likely to use skin lighteners than women who didn’t perceive such beliefs from their communities.

People of color have used chemical straighteners and skin lighteners for decades as a way to more easily assimilate, or to widen their social or career opportunities, the authors wrote. For example, they noted, a 2021 Pew Research survey found that 59% of Hispanic adults believed having lighter skin would “help them get ahead” in the U.S.

Beaumont Morton, an author on the study and the director of environmental health and education at WE ACT, told EHN the results are evidence that Eurocentric beauty standards are manifesting as haircare and beauty choices, potentially harming users in the process. Morton also said the results are especially concerning given the lack of ability of some to spend extra money and time on finding safer alternatives.

Lack of regulation

beauty justice

Chemical straighteners and skin lighteners — beauty products frequently used among Black and Asian Americans —sometimes contain harmful ingredients such as formaldehyde, mercury, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Credit: Rendy Novantino/Unsplash

Researchers have found hazardous chemicals in numerous beauty products available in the U.S. Skin lighteners have been shown to contain hydroquinone, corticosteroids and mercury, all of which are linked to harmful health effects. Last year, a study out of the National Institutes of Health found that chemical hair straightening products — which can contain formaldehyde, phthalates and parabens — were linked to a higher risk of uterine cancer.

Yet there are few regulations in place to keep consumers safe from potentially toxic beauty products. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, does not approve beauty products before they're sold by stores, and was only recently given the power to recall beauty products shown to impact human health.

The FDA’s policies, said Edwards, are “very much outdated.”

Related: Listen — The dangers of skin lightening products

Edwards said it’s been promising to see some states take action, such as California and Maryland, which have banned hazardous ingredients like mercury, formaldehyde, PFAS and certain parabens and phthalates from personal care products.

On the federal level, a package of bills dubbed the “Safer Beauty Bills,” which would require disclosure of all ingredients and ban the use of mercury, formaldehyde, parabens, phthalates, phenylenediamines and all PFAS in beauty products, was introduced into Congress in 2021, though no parts of the bill package have yet passed.

Traci Bethea, a professor who studies cancer health disparities at Georgetown University who was not involved in the study, said in an email to EHN that current government regulations are “failing to protect the public.”

Raising awareness, breaking down beauty standards

Regulation is only one facet of the multi-tentacled problem, though — educating consumers and retailers about the dangers of certain beauty products is also important, Morton said. WE ACT runs a campaign called “Beauty Inside Out” to raise awareness among its community about the potential dangers of some beauty products.

Edwards recommends using filters for “clean” products when shopping online, or searching for safe products with a guide from the Environmental Working Group, an environmental health nonprofit. However, Morton and Edwards said, consumers shouldn’t have to be responsible for knowing the health effects of every chemical in the products they use.

Additionally, breaking down racialized beauty standards can be part of the solution.

For example, legislation that outlaws certain types of discrimination can ease pressure on people of color. That legislation already exists in some form; for example, a 2019 California law, dubbed the “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” or CROWN Act, protects Black Californians from discrimination based on hair textures or styles like locs, braids and twists. The same or similar legislation has passed in 16 additional states.

However, less progress has been made regarding skin-tone based discrimination. “How do you change centuries of colonialism and racism that have always uplifted light and white skin tone and features?” said Edwards.

Morton, however, remains hopeful. “I see the value of women of color and femme-identifying folks, and the value of protecting their health. And we've met a lot of people along the way who also share that vision. I think a lot of really good momentum is going to be put towards making those changes.”

Editor's note: Dr. Lariah Edwards is an assistant director of the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice program, a collaboration between Environmental Health News and the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

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