Report: Beauty Products for Black Women Have More Health Hazards

Researchers say ingredients in products pose a risk of hormone disruption, developmental and reproductive damage and cancer.

An analysis of hair and beauty products marketed to Black women found that approximately 1,177 products contain more potentially harmful ingredients than products promoted to the general public.

Last week, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington-based nonprofit and nonpartisan environmental organization specializing in research and advocacy, released the report “Big Market For Black Cosmetics, But Less-Hazardous Choices Limited.”

An author of the report, Deputy Director of Research at EWG Nneka Leiba, said products specifically targeted toward Black women are less healthy.

“As a Black woman myself, I was disheartened that Black women have fewer options for healthier products when they are choosing from products specifically targeted to them,” she told TIME magazine.

Leiba and co-authors of the report — Paul Pestano, senior database analyst, and Brit’ny Hawkins, EWG consultant — state that about one in 12 of the 1,177 products tested was ranked highly hazardous on EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database scoring system, which now rates more than 64,000 products.

The cosmetic database compares product ingredients to more than 60 toxicity and regulatory databases and scientific studies. Products are rated from 1 (lowest hazard) to 10 (highest hazard).

The EWR report indicates that less than 25 percent of the products marketed to Black women scored low in potentially hazardous ingredients, compared to about 40 percent of the items in the Skin Deep Database, which are marketed to the general public.

The report states:

“The percentage of products scored as ‘high hazard’ was about the same for both market segments, but the disparity in products scored as ‘low hazard’ suggests that there may be a narrower range of choices for safer-scoring products specifically marketed to Black women.”

None of the products marketed to Black women received a “low hazard” score in the categories of hair relaxers, hair colors and bleaching products, lipsticks, concealers, foundations and sun-protective makeup.

Potential hazards linked to product ingredients include cancer, hormone disruption, developmental and reproductive damage, allergies and other adverse health effects.

Researchers say ingredients in products pose a risk of hormone disruption, developmental and reproductive damage and cancer.Products with the highest potential hazard are hair colors, bleaching products and hair relaxers. The 15 hair relaxers evaluated scored an average of 8.1. For example, Organics by Africa’s Best Touch Up Plus Organic Conditioning Relaxer System received a 10 (highest hazard). It is indicated the product is likely to perpetuate allergies and immunotoxicity.

The authors state, “We assess the ingredients listed on the labels of personal care products based on data in toxicity and regulatory databases, government and health agency assessments and the open scientific literature.”

Prior research has also indicated the chemical hazards of hair relaxers. The American Journal of Epidemiology released a study in 2012, “Hair Relaxer Use and Risk of Uterine Leiomyomata in African-American Women,” which linked the product to uterine fibroids, as well as early puberty in young girls.

From 1997 to 2009, researchers followed 23,580 premenopausal African American women. They assessed that chemical exposure through scalp lesions and burns resulting from relaxers may have resulted in a two- to three-times higher rate of fibroids among Black women. 

Straight Hair in the Workplace

Hair texture has no connection to talent or ability. Yet some companies negatively judge Black women on the basis of their choice of a natural hairstyle.

Beauty Products for Black Women Have More Health Hazards

Joan Smalls

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Black people have been overlooked for promotions because of natural hair or darker skin color,” DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti wrote in a column “Ask the White Guy: Do Blacks Need to Relax Their Natural Hair to Get Promoted.”

“Companies that manage past bias and hire, mentor and promote equitably have better talent. They are also better prepared for the future as our country becomes more diverse.”

Joan Smalls, a biracial Puerto Rican supermodel who has walked the Victoria’s Secret runway, revealed during a panel on diversity and inclusiveness on December 3 that she has a hard time booking hair campaigns.

“I’ve been an option, but they dropped me last minute, and the excuse was, ‘We were afraid to try something new,’ and by ‘new,’ they mean, ‘We never shot a Black girl,’” Smalls said.

Related Story: Federal Court Rules It’s OK for Employers to Prohibit Dreadlocks

In September, in a 3-0 decision, the 11th U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Catastrophe Management Solutions’, an insurance claims processing company in Alabama, decision not to hire Chastity Jones, a Black woman, because she has dreadlocks. The court asserted that it’s legal for companies to refuse employment based on hairstyles.

Lissiah Taylor Hundley, diversity and inclusion strategist for Cox Enterprises (No. 18 on the 2016 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list), commented on the fact that many Black women are embracing natural hairstyles in lieu of chemical straightening, regardless of company culture.

“As we’ve come to appreciate our diverse beauty and the unique kinks and curls of our hair, some of us have embraced our natural hairstyles and wear locs and braids with pride and appreciation for our heritage and love of our hair texture,” Hundley told DiversityInc.

Food and Drug Administration

Before most cosmetics and ingredients are sold, they don’t need approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

According to CNN:

“Products ‘must be safe for consumers under labeled or customary conditions of use, and they must be properly labeled,’ the [FDA] said. ‘Companies and individuals who manufacture or market cosmetics have a legal responsibility to ensure the safety of their products. However, the law does not require cosmetic companies to share their safety information, including adverse events.’”

Black consumers account for as much as 22 percent of the personal care products market, according to the report. However, thorough information on the hazards of products hasn’t been available until now.

“We received emails asking for products targeting Black women” to be included in the Skin Deep Database, said Pestano, co-author of the report.

The Environmental Working Group was founded in 1993. It specializes in research and advocacy in the areas of agricultural subsidies, public lands, toxic chemicals and corporate accountability. Ken Cook is the president and co-founder.

EWG’s 18-person board of directors includes prominent physicians, policy experts, environmental activists, attorneys and executives, as well as members of the entertainment industry, such as actress Michelle Pfeiffer.

Read about all of the products reviewed in “Big Market For Black Cosmetics, But Less-Hazardous Choices Limited.”

Read more news @ DiversityInc.com

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15 comments


  • Jim Bob Lassiter

    Well maybe the queen of “cultural appropriation’ in Black women’s hair styles herself would like to take one more crack at leaving a successful legacy after her embarrassing failure in modifying dietary habits of poverty children via the public school lunch program.

  • My dear friend Angela — who previously relaxed her natural hair, but went to dreads before losing her hair to chemo — could die at any time from the metastasized uterine cancer that evolved from her fibroids. She’s a young woman, with a professional career, who recently bought a home. She has so much to live for, but — tragically — will be gone way too soon. Cosmetic products should absolutely be more closely regulated, including requiring the companies to share all their data. Unfortunately, I fear that — under the incoming Administration — the opposite will happen. I don’t blame Alicia Keys for going the “no make-up” route. She is even more beautiful and inspiring than before for having done so.

    • I agree GB. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all felt comfortable enough in our shoes to not don makeup at all?! I find myself wearing less and less, but still can’t walk out of the house with none unless I’m doing yard work!

    • Charity Dell

      GRANNYBUNNY–When it comes to women and uterine cancers, the medical profession
      simply is BEHIND in research, more accurate diagnostic tools, better prevention and
      better early detection tools. What most ob/gyns are NOT telling most women, is that the
      longer you keep the female reproductive organs past menopause, the higher your
      cancer risk goes up. The pap smear only shows cervical cancer but does not show
      either ovarian or uterine cancers. So a “normal” pap smear is really providing a false
      sense of security…the ONLY option women have at this time to fully PREVENT
      cancers of the female reproductive system is SURGICAL REMOVAL of these organs
      after menopause has occurred.

      Many physicians have never seen carcinosarcoma because most of their female
      patients have had hysterectomies by the time are 65 years old.

      1. My own dear mother–and an aunt on my dad’s side–suffered from carcinosarcoma of the uterus and died from it in their 80’s; Mom was 84, and my aunt was 85. What is so sad
      about carcinosarcoma is that it tends to strike ELDERLY POST-MENOPAUSAL WOMEN,
      and it’s usually a DEATH SENTENCE IN AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMEN, even when supposedly caught in Stage 1 (contained within the uterus).

      2. My own former Sunday School teacher is 96, and she just had a full hysterectomy
      (by Da Vinci robotic surgery) this fall! The sad thing about this cancer, is that you MUST get the full hysterectomy regardless of age, because you will continually BLEED OUT and suffer PERNICIOUS ANEMIC EFFECTS, even as the cancer continues to spread.

      3. All three of these women had long lives of “normal” living in the post-menopausal
      stage, but two of them died fighting these cancers late in their lives.

      4. The only “warning sign” is sudden vaginal bleeding, and the blood is bright red.
      My theory is that this cancer is so deadly and spreads so fast, because it:

      A. Starts in the bloodiest organ of the human body (other than the heart);
      B. Has all the fuel it needs (estrogen and blood products) to feed the cancer–and
      so may be skipping angiogenesis;
      C. There are no pain symptoms–so the victim has no idea what’s going on;
      D. The cancer takes advantage of all the elaborate circulatory system within
      the uterus–so cancer cells jump into capillaries, arteries and veins and ride
      their way literally to ANYWHERE within the body.

      When I began suffering from hyperplasia of the uterus–the same year my mother
      died (2014), I decided to end my suffering and I had a complete hysterectomy
      (through the minimally-invasive laparoscopic surgery) this year. I have no regrets
      except, I wish that surgery had been available for my own mother back in the 1970’s
      when she first suffered from hyperplasia and no one could even tell her why she
      had it or what the exact condition was named.

      Until better prevention and diagnostics are available, a full hysterectomy AFTER menopause is the ONLY way women can AVOID these reproductive tract cancers
      BEFORE they can start and wreak havoc!

  • Anyone with a double name like Jim Bob has rednecKKK roots which includes a low IQ inbred in the Dirty South.

    I started wearing my naturally black short afro in the early 1990’s. Many ignorant and culturally illiterate whites want Black women to mimic their stringy hair with toxic chemical relaxers or dead-hair from other stringy-haired women formed as wigs, weaves, or braids.

    The problem is twofold: Shallow Eurocentric Black women who feel compelled to conform to white supremacist standards or else remain jobless and unable to attract equally shallow men. Shallow Black men who want women whose hair looks like white women’s. Insecure Black women would continue to use chemicals if white folks told them the product contained strychnine. Not only do these products cause fried fibroids, there have been medical research that linked these “cancer cocktails (i.e., relaxers, hair dyes, and sprays) to Lupus; Black women suffer and die from it three times more than white women while trying to get their hair like theirs. Ignorant and culturally assimilated Black men won’t date Black women with naturally nappy hair; they suffer from the same disease Kanye has–if they can’t get a white woman, they want their woman to monkey and mimic them in every way.

    Luke is absolutely correct in saying that dark-skinned Blacks or those with natural hair have a harder time getting and keeping jobs. I’m the same complexion as Gen. Colin Powell, but in spending over 20 years in the dirty South, I noticed how ignorant color-struck whites and Blacks treat dark-skinned women worse than sh*t. They’re the last hired and first fired. The only way they survive in the culturally illiterate South and Northwest (i.e., Seattle) is by becoming an Uncle Tom or az-kissing sycophant.

    The same white ignorance is the reason whites prefer half-breeds like O’Bama; the more Blacks resemble, think, and act just like them, the more they will promote them in corporate AmeriKKKa. Farrakhan is lighter-skinned than O’Bama, but like me, we’re falsely accused of being “too radical” (aka telling the truth about whites continued racist supremacy and oppression). Talking about racism is something biracials like O’Bama would NEVER do because it’s like talking about their own racist mother or father.

    I can attest to the benefits of light-skinned privilege just as O’Bama and other half-breeds benefited from their 50% white privilege. Fortunately, I’m proudly 76% African from the Fula tribe originating from the Benin/Nigeria regions.

  • Alicia Keys’ artistry is astounding, however the idea that she’s going wihout makeup b she decided to embrace her natural beauty is somewhat misleading. She is embracing it now that she took years to “fix” what she felt were her skin’s flaws- acne. She’d struggled with acne for years as a pro-active spokeswoman and “fixed” her skin, then decided it was time to embrace it! At this point, at minimum it would be great if now, literally the face of the message to us that we should embrace our natural skin and beauty, her messaging embraced that part of her beauty story as well.

    Condolences to your friend. The more I learn about our products, the more I worry that mine and my daughters’ exposure may result in a similar ending. I also have friends with histories of fibroid problems and their respective doctors just can’t identify the causes…..sadly, the creamy crack exposure makes sense.

  • Almost 15 years ago I woke up with the conviction that I needed to stop using chemicals on my hair. I started locking my hair in 2003 and have not looked back. This information needs to reach all women of color. It is a matter of life or death.

  • Although this is probably common knowledge, black women spend millions each year on hair care products. The only way it will change is when black women wake up and either create their own organic products, and spend the money elsewhere. Money talks!

  • It should not matter your hair style the only thing should matter is that the person is qualified and capable of performing the essential job functions.

  • John O'Connell

    ZaziJams: I am left sensing a generalization in your comment below. (I hope I’m wrong) I wonder if you would share what you perceive the percentage of racists or racist behavior is among those of European decent. I would also ask Luke Visconti to let us know what surveys prove that figure actually is. I have a theory that I think needs to be considered by all who feel or sense discrimination as opposed to those that really experience racism or a racist act. I think that if we look at how we all are guilty of feeling more comfortable in the company of those with whom we have the most in common we are more likely to perceive an exclusive environment rather than accepting that we are witnessing the inclusive behavior of “birds of a feather flocking together”. Some situations will be perceived to be exclusive by those that can’t belong within an activity or an event. If that perception encourages a hostile reaction then we have the beginning of a problem. The cure can only be creating tolerance through education in order to change perceptions and assumptions. Sadly I have no doubt that racism is prevalent today but it is only encouraged and promoted by unjust forces who somehow, still in these times manage to influence the willfully ignorant and inexperienced among us. We have a very tough challenge before us if we are to create a tolerant inclusive society. We can neither force a closed mind to open nor push a separatist into diversity. We are left with only promoting understanding and discouraging unacceptable behavior at every opportunity.

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