California’s Black Health Network highlights ties between cosmetics and cancer-causing chemicals

California’s Black Health Network teamed up with Breast Cancer Prevention Partners to increase awareness about chemicals in beauty products that are linked to health concerns, specifically among Black women, through the Non-Toxic Black Beauty Project.

The Non-Toxic Black Beauty Project began in 2020 during the wake of the tragic murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery through the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC). With the guidance and assistance of an Advisory Committee made up of leading non-governmental agencies and scientists working to improve Black women’s health, including the executive director of California’s Black Health Network, Rhonda Smith, the Non-Toxic Black Beauty Project was launched.

 

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 As a growing number of Americans emphasized supporting and shopping black-owned businesses in wake of the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020, social media exploded with a list of recommended Black-owned businesses. CSC became concerned that many of the lists of Black-owned beauty brands recommended by influencers and the mainstream media consisted of products made with toxic ingredients, and CSC knew that Black women were already over-exposed to toxic beauty products due to racist and sexist Eurocentric beauty standards.

“Black women and professional salon workers experience some of the highest rates of exposures to toxic chemicals in the cosmetic products they use on themselves and their children or work with daily,” stated the Non-Toxic Black Beauty Project. “More than 40 other nations have stricter cosmetic safety regulations than the US.”

The European Union banned nearly 1,800 chemicals from beauty and personal care products that are known to cause cancer, birth defects, and reproductive harm. According to the Non-Toxic Black Beauty Project, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only banned or restricted 11 ingredients from cosmetics to date. 

The Project also states that cosmetics is one of the least regulated consumer products on the market, and that the FDA does not have authority to recall unsafe products, and doesn’t require pre-market safety testing of cosmetic ingredients.

Approximately 7,000 Black women in the US die of breast cancer annually. Black women have the highest breast cancer mortality rate of any racial and ethnic group in the United States, and face other health disparities, including earlier onset of puberty, and higher rates of hormone mediated issues, such as preterm births and uterine fibroids.

Black women are nine times more likely to purchase hair care products than any demographic. The average woman uses about 12 different beauty and personal care products everyday, creating an exposure to about 168 toxic chemicals. The Project states that many of these chemicals are hormone disruptors that have been linked to diabetes, endometriosis, infertility, obesity, breast and ovarian cancers, and uterine fibroids. Some products that claim to be natural or organic can contain harmful chemicals. Chemical exposures also exist for professional salon workers, many of whom are Black women and other People of Color, who use potentially hazardous products every day in their work, such as bleaches and relaxers, among others.

Toxic ingredients to look out for

Primary products of concern include hair, such as dyes, straighteners, and relaxers; makeup, including color cosmetics, and fragranced products; and skincare, such as sunscreen and skin lighteners. Black women who use chemical hair straighteners are 30% more likely to develop breast cancer, and Black women who regularly dye their hair have a 60% increased risk for breast cancer.

“Regular use of chemical relaxers and straighteners have also been suggested to increase the risk of breast cancer in Black women, particularly among women who use these products frequently, started using these products in childhood or adolescence, or use lye-based relaxers,” said the Non-Toxic Black Beauty Project.

  • Alkylphenols is found in hair relaxers, root stimulators, hair lotions, and hot oils. Health harms associated with alkylphenols include endocrine disruption, developmental harm, and reproductive harm.
  • Benzyl Salicylate is found in shampoo, conditioner, makeup, and skincare, with health harms including endocrine disruption and breast cancer. 
  • Butylated Compounds (BHA and BHT) are found in lipstick, eyeliner, eyeshadow and body care. Health concerns related to these chemicals include cancer, hormone disruptions, irritants, and organ system toxicity.
  • Carbon Black and D&C Black 2 are found in eyeliner, eyeshadow, mascara, nail polish, brush-on-brow, and lipstick, with health harms including cancer, organ system toxicity, and irritants.
  • DMDM Hydantoin and Diazolidinylure are found in hair, body, and skincare products. Health concerns include cancer, endocrine disruption, maternal health issues, respiratory issues, and irritants.
  • Ethyl, Methyl, and Propyl parabens are found in hair, body, and skin care, makeup, and sunscreen. Health concerns include cancer, endocrine disruption, early onset of puberty, endometriosis, pregnancy complications, and maternal health issues.
  • Formaldehyde is found in eyelash glue, nail polish and treatments, and hair straighteners, with harms including cancer and respiratory issues.
  • Fragrance is found in perfume; body spray; hair, skin, and body care; and baby care products. Health harms include cancer, hormone disruption, reproductive harm, developmental harm, and respiratory harm.
  • PFAS chemicals are found in long-lasting waterproof lipstick, mascara, eyeliner, and anti-frizz and hair products. Health harms include endocrine disruption, cancer, and reproductive harm.
  • Resorcinol, O, M & P – Phenylenediamine are found in hair dyes and have been tied to cancer, hormone disruption, immune system toxicity, and irritants.
  • Toluene is found in nail polish, cuticle treatments, and other nail treatments, causing reproductive harm, developmental harm, nervous system toxicity, and kidney and liver toxicity.
  • UV Filters, such as benzophenone, oxybenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, and avobenzone are found in sunscreen, nail products, anti-frizz products, hair lotions, leave-in conditioners, hot oils, make-up, and baby care products. Health harms include endocrine disruption and developmental harm. 

To curb the use of products containing toxic chemicals, CSC suggests reading the ingredient labels to avoid chemicals of concern, choosing products with simpler ingredient lists, using fewer products, and using an app such as Clearya or Think Dirty to find out whether products are toxic while shopping. 

The Non-Toxic Black Beauty Project developed a “Red List,” which is a resource for businesses to assess the safety of ingredients in products sold. They also developed a list of top Black-owned beauty brands, which includes Girls with Curls, Sienna Naturals, Eleven by Venus Williams, and Oui the People, among others.