Black women are ingesting potentially lethal chemicals through their everyday cosmetics, a new investigation finds. Researchers from the non-profit Environmental Working Group examined 1,777 beauty products marketed specifically towards African-American women. It found that one in 12 products were rated “highly hazardous” in terms of chemical composition, with ingredients linked to cancer, hormone disruption, allergies, and reproductive damage.
Disturbingly, black beauty products were disproportionately more likely to contain dodgy toxins compared to cosmetics marketed at non-black women. Fewer than a quarter of products designed for black women were scored by the group as “low hazard” (rating a one or two on a ten-point scale), compared to 40 percent of products marketed to the general public.
The most toxic products surveyed were hair relaxers, colorants, and bleaching products, all of which averaged high potential hazard scores. The worst offenders were relaxers from brands including African Pride and Crème of Nature, which scored the maximum possible score for toxicity despite being marketed as “no-lye,” a marketing label that leads many consumers to believe the products are milder and less potentially harmful. Broadly has reached out to African Pride and Crème of Nature for comment.
Some of the potentially toxic products evaluated by EWG were manufactured by cosmetics behemoths such as L’Oreal, which owns hair brand Dark and Lovely. A no-lye relaxer from their range scored eight out of a potential ten toxicity rating, with ingredients such as lilial associated with endocrine disruption. A L’Oreal spokesperson told Broadly, “We ensure that all of our products and ingredients have undergone a rigorous safety assessment before they are placed on the market.”
According to market research firm Mintel, the black haircare market alone is worth an estimated $2.5 billion dollars in the US. In recent years black consumers have tended to favor products marketed as “natural” or “organic,” but there is no guarantee these cosmetics are any safer. The US cosmetics industry is self-regulated, although the Food and Drink Administration can intervene if consumers raise concerns about certain products—otherwise, the only assurances that your beauty products aren’t harmful come from the people selling them to you.
“Some of the chemicals in these cosmetics products I would handle with great care, using gloves and a fume hood in a laboratory,” explains Professor Philippa Darbre of Reading University, a biochemist and cosmetics industry specialist. “And yet people are using them openly in their homes, which is shocking, really.”
Darbre explains that the cosmetics industry in the US particularly operates with a shocking lack of government oversight. “There hasn’t been adequate regulation throughout the years,” Darbre says. “Things are going the right way in the European Union, but the United States’ Federal Drug Administration still hasn’t moved yet.”
I ask how this is possible. “You might well ask, and so do I,” she responds. The cosmetics companies decide what is safe, and what isn’t. There’s an element of these cosmetics companies not wanting to change the status quo and spend any more money developing new things.”
Another problem is the limited research into the potentially harmful impact of the chemicals commonly used in cosmetic products. “When I first started thinking about underarm cosmetics and breast cancer there was nothing! Nothing published anywhere on any of the chemicals. Parabens were unheard of; aluminum was unheard of.”
She explains that endocrine disruption—meaning hormone disruption—can be linked to everyday cosmetics. “In particular, the hormones that control reproduction, like estrogen in women, can be disrupted by the chemicals commonly found in beauty products,” she says. Dangers can involve girls going into puberty too early, or men developing breasts. Parabens like methylparaben or ethylparaben—which the EWG links to endocrine disruption—are commonly found in black hair relaxers.
Darbre argues passionately that further research is needed. “We also need to see these products being put through a set of safety tests by cosmetics companies, to judge their potential long-term dangers,” she explains. “No-one would use a drug that hasn’t been tested on animals to check it doesn’t have long-term effects, but we put cosmetics on our skin that have never undergone testing.”