Study: Women of Color Exposed to More Toxic Chemicals in Personal Care Products

Women of color use more beauty products and are disproportionately exposed to worrisome chemicals compared to white women, according to a new study.

The study, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, calls on health care providers to become more aware of how exposure to environmental chemicals may impact the reproductive health of vulnerable populations.

Ami R. Zota, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, and Bhavna Shamasunder, a scientist in the Urban and Environmental Policy Department at Los Angeles’ Occidental College, recommend further study into the potential effects of exposure to chemicals through beauty products. They also suggest this may be an important area of intervention, especially for women of color who are likely most affected by toxic ingredients in these products.

“Pressure to meet Western standards of beauty means Black, Latina and Asian American women are using more beauty products, and thus are exposed to higher levels of chemicals known to be harmful to health,” Zota wrote in a news release.

Women of color spend more on cosmetics that include skin-lightening creams, hair straightening and relaxing treatments, and feminine cleansing and hygiene products.

In 2015, the same researchers published a study in the journal Environmental Health that found differences among races and ethnicities in both feminine hygiene practices and exposure to phthalates.

“Our findings showing that Black women may be at higher risk is important,” said Zota. “It shows that some subpopulations are disproportionately exposed and that personal care product use may be driving these exposure disparities.”

In December 2016, EWG assessed almost 1,200 products marketed specifically to Black women and concluded that fewer products made without hazardous ingredients are available for this group. According to market data, Black women buy and use more personal care products than other demographic groups.

Women of childbearing age should limit their exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals that can harm the reproductive system and fetal development. Preservatives like parabens have been linked to diminished fertility, lowered thyroid levels and other reproductive problems.

Some of the adverse reactions associated with exposure to toxic formaldehyde-releasing preservatives include hair loss, a blistered scalp, neck and face rashes, nosebleeds and other long-term health problems. In 2011, the U.S. government designated formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen.

Fragrance is by far the most widely used ingredient, found in more than half of the products EWG evaluated. Fragrance mixtures can be comprised of any number of more than 3,000 ingredients, and can trigger allergic reactions such as asthma, wheezing, headaches and contact dermatitis. Some of the ingredients used in these formulas mimic the hormone estrogen and are associated with harmful thyroid effects.

Obstetricians and gynecologists should consider environmental exposures to beauty products, and the disparities across racial and social demographics when providing treatment or counseling patients.

“Beauty product use is a critical but underappreciated source of reproductive harm and environmental injustice,” Zota said.

The Food and Drug Administration should be testing the ingredients used in all personal care products to ensure cosmetics are as safe and healthy as possible. Right now, there aren’t even basic safety assessments. And while some companies have voluntarily reformulated their products because of consumer feedback, much more work needs to be done.

Federal standards governing the safety of personal care products have not been updated since the 1930s. Sens. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, recently introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act, which would significantly strengthen the FDA’s authority to address health risks of cosmetics. 

The bill would require the FDA to regularly review the safety of cosmetics ingredients, and require bans or special labeling of chemicals found to be harmful. The agency also would have the recall authority to take dangerous products off store shelves.

“For women who live in already polluted neighborhoods, beauty product chemicals may add to their overall burden of exposures to toxic chemicals,” Shamasunder, coauthor of the new study, wrote in a statement.

There is much more work to be done. EWG agrees that the medical community should consider reframing the issue of harmful exposures from everyday use of personal care products as a health disparity for women of color.

EWG offers tools for women who wish to find healthier alternatives. When shopping for beauty products, use Skin Deep® to look up questionable ingredients. EWG’s Healthy Living app allows consumers to scan a product, review its rating and make healthier purchases. And EWG VERIFIED™, our new mark, was created to help shoppers quickly and easily identify products that meet EWG’s strictest health and transparency standards.

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