Clean Beauty: A Focus on Equity Beyond Vanity

The clean beauty movement centers on the removal of hidden and often harmful ingredients from cosmetic products like lipstick and nail polish. Although clean beauty might be dismissed as a trend driven by celebrities, the choices made by brands regarding the components in everyday cosmetics hold tangible implications for people’s well-being.

A notable concern is that research indicates women of color face a disproportionate exposure to detrimental toxins in beauty and personal care items. This demographic invests more in products like hair treatments, skin lighteners, and feminine hygiene products. Surprisingly, statistics estimate that black women, on average, purchase nine times the amount of beauty products compared to white women. Additionally, the Latinx women’s segment is burgeoning within the beauty market. Consequently, the presence of harmful chemicals in these products poses potential health risks for women of color.

The detrimental health effects linked to beauty and personal care products are noteworthy. Taylor Morton, the director of Environmental Health and Education at the non-profit organization WE ACT for Environmental Justice, highlights the adverse health consequences faced by women of color due to exposure to toxic substances. “Women of color are disproportionately affected by toxic products,” Morton emphasizes. “These impacts can negatively affect the reproductive system, hormones, and nervous system.”

Numerous beauty and personal care products aimed at women of color incorporate harmful toxins such as parabens, estrogenic compounds, formaldehyde, phthalates, lead, mercury, triclosan, and benzophenone. A well-recognized study published in 2017 in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology underscores that women of color using hair relaxers, skin lightening creams, and feminine hygiene products are exposed to damaging chemicals resulting in adverse health effects. For instance, the study finds that products tailored for ethnic hair, widely used by African American women, often contain placenta (a possible source of estrogen hormones) and parabens. The study points out that using these products correlates with heightened risks of earlier menarche (early menstrual periods) and uterine fibroid tumors.

Researchers also point to the elevated use of vaginal douches and scented feminine cleansing products among African American women. Frequent douching reportedly leads to a 150% increase in exposure to diethyl phthalate, a chemical associated with higher risks of adverse health outcomes in offspring, as well as an elevated risk of bacterial vaginosis and pelvic inflammatory disease.

Signs of Progress in Legislation and Corporate Practices

Fortunately, a growing recognition among both the general public and policymakers acknowledges the link between harmful chemicals in beauty products and negative health effects, particularly for women of color. In 2019, Representative Jan Schakowsky introduced the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act, aiming to eliminate toxic chemicals from cosmetic items and address the overexposure of underrepresented communities to such substances. Additionally, Senators Dianne Feinstein, Susan Collins, and Frank Pallone introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act, a bipartisan initiative aimed at reforming the regulation of personal care products and ensuring the safety of cosmetic ingredients.

Corporate entities are also joining the effort, understanding the significance of offering consumers access to safe and healthy products. Major retailers like Target, CVS, and Sephora have adopted policies to remove toxic chemicals from beauty items available in their stores. Walmart, for instance, collaborated with the Environmental Defense Fund in 2013 to establish a chemicals policy targeting hazardous components in consumer products and advocating ingredient transparency.

Community-Based Initiatives and the Path Forward

Community-based organizations are also taking action to advocate for safer beauty and personal care products. “Beauty Inside Out,” a campaign launched by We Act! For Environmental Justice in 2019, raises awareness about the disproportionate exposure of women of color to harmful chemicals in these products. The campaign seeks to influence decision-makers and retailers to produce safe and healthy beauty and personal care items for this demographic.

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