Racist beauty standards do a lot of damage to non-white women. Mercury, hormone-disrupting chemicals and steroids are just some of the potentially harmful substances in beauty and personal care products marketed for women of color.
Recent research published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, by researchers from George Washington University and Occidental College argues that women of color are exposed to higher levels of toxins than white women. That’s because they use, on average, more cosmetic products in an effort to comply with European beauty standards.
The immense global pressure to conform to a white European ideal—including light skin, straight hair, and a slim figure—means that women of color are particularly susceptible to developing psychological problems ranging from eating disorders to depression and generalized self-hatred. The authors wrote:
“Racial discrimination based on European beauty norms can lead to internalized racism, body shame, and skin tone dissatisfaction, factors that can influence product use to achieve straighter hair or lighter skin […] thus, beauty product use may be one way that structural discrimination becomes biologically embedded.”
Researchers Ami Zota, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University, and Bhavna Shamasunder, assistant professor of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College in Los Angeles, looked at previous studies and found that women from ethnic backgrounds in the US spend more on beauty products than the national average.
Higher Exposures to a Harmful Chemical
They also found that cosmetics marketed directly to WOC such as skin lighteners, chemical hair straighteners and odour masking products contain far higher levels of chemicals than those sold to white women. Zota and Shamasunder blame brands’ marketing practices that “emphasize a European standard of beauty” as the reason.
The scientists say that products like chemical hair relaxers are likely to contain estrogen which can trigger premature reproductive development in young girls and possibly uterine tumors. In contrast, skin lightening face creams contain hidden ingredients such as topical steroids or mercury, which is toxic to humans.
They also cite a study done by Zota and her colleagues in 2016. It was revealed that women using douching products for vaginal cleaning had significantly higher exposures to a harmful chemical known as DEP, which may cause congenital disabilities in babies and have also been linked to women’s health problems.
Research also shows that low-income WOC is more likely to live in an environment with high levels of pollutants – and the scientists warn that a combination of constant exposures to chemicals in beauty products and pollution can interfere with healthy reproduction and development.
The unregulated industry
In the US, cosmetics are largely unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Unlike drugs and medical devices, they don’t have to go through multiple clinical trials to be considered safe for consumer use.
However, the FDA does have a website where people can post complaints about various products when they experience adverse health outcomes. Between 2015 and 2016, the number of these complaints more than doubled, suggesting that some users think these products—especially hair-care products—are making them sick. The authors added:
“Thus, beauty product use may be one way that structural discrimination becomes biologically embedded […] Women in Africa, India, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the Americas regularly use skin-lightening cosmetics […] skin-lightening creams can contain hydroquinone, topical corticosteroids, or inorganic mercury. Multiple cases of mercury poisoning, characterized by damage to the kidneys and the central nervous system, have been reported following the use of skin-lightening products.”
Contains Toxic Chemicals
They said the US limited the amount of mercury in skin products, but unlicensed cosmetics was still available. The academics warned that doctors working in obstetrics and gynecology “should be aware of the potentially toxic effects of commonly used beauty products, recognize disparities across these demographics, and be prepared to counsel patients who have questions about these and other environmental exposures”.
Whenever possible, avoid products that contain chemicals with the most robust evidence of potential harm, such as formaldehyde, mercury, toluene (an industrial solvent that can affect the nervous system), and lead. Nudelman says some nail polish, for example, contains toxic chemicals such as toluene and formaldehyde that have been linked to cancer and congenital disabilities, she says:
“Hair dyes, hair relaxers, nail polish, and skin-lightening creams are among the worst of the worst when it comes to beauty products.”