According to a commentary in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology by researchers at George Washington University and Occidental College, California, women of color are more at risk of being exposed to harmful chemicals present in beauty and health care products, compared to their white counterparts. These toxic chemicals are linked to reproductive health problems and diseases such as cancer [1].

The lucrative beauty industry is estimated at $400 dollars globally. Upon close inspection of the statistics it is not hard to understand how women of color are more vulnerable to toxicity from beauty products, as African American consumers purchased 9 times more ethnic hair and beauty products than any other group [1].

The global preference for lighter skin means that African, Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern and African American women regularly use skin-lightening creams which contain topical steroids, metals such as mercury (more commonly known for shellfish and fish toxicity), and hydroquinone.  The maximum limit of mercury allowed in cosmetic creams is set at 1 ppm by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) however, creams which contain > 20, 000 ppm of mercury, (sold in unregulated countries outside the US), have been reported to elevate blood mercury levels to almost triple the amount recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and prevention. This has led to cases where skin lightening creams have caused mercury poisoning, which damages kidney function and the Central Nervous System (CNS) [1].

Hair products are another significant source of chemical toxicity according to this report. Compared to white women, African American and African Caribbean women are likely to use more hair products and chemically treat their hair. They are also twice as likely to experience social pressure to straighten their hair. Hair straightening products contain hormones such as estrogen and exposure to these chemicals has been linked to premature reproductive development such as breast budding, and uterine fibroid tumors [1].

Research conducted in 2016, revealed that women of color were more likely to use personal hygiene products such as douches, which are actively discouraged by the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG), as they can increase the risk of vaginal infections and inflammatory disease. Taking a sample of women of reproductive age in the US, who frequently use douches, it was found that these women are 150% more likely to be exposed to chemicals such as diethyl phthalate (DEP).  DEP has been reported to seriously compromise reproductive and neurological health [2].

US African American women also disproportionately use talc-based powders on their genitals; a practice which has been linked to cancers of the reproductive system. This issue has received significant media attention due to the recent judicial proceedings between the multinational giant Johnson & Johnson and a woman who claims that her terminal ovarian cancer was caused by decades of talc use. The scale of the payout ($417m) which this woman was awarded, perhaps acts as an indicator of the serious health threat these products may pose and the need for more comprehensive transparent research [3].

So why do these cleansing practices still exist and why are they particular to certain ethnic groups?

Continued use of these types of fragranced products in African American women is thought to be due to cultural sensitivities around vaginal odor. It has also been suggested that vaginal cleansing is an historical legacy from societal pressures regarding sexual behavior, where odor was connected to sexual promiscuity [1].

Human exposure to toxins in beauty products is generally understudied and many products lack satisfactory information on health and safety status. However, when addressing the reasons for why women from minority groups follow these cleansing and beauty practices, and spend more money on beauty products compared to the national average, the authors place the blame firmly on marketing campaigns. The European image is portrayed in the global media as the embodiment of beauty. Western beauty standards are therefore considered the norm, putting pressure on minority groups such as women of color to conform. This is therefore causing a disproportionate amount of these women to be exposed to toxic, disease-causing chemicals [1].


Improvements in government regulation and awareness campaigns targeting minority communities may help to reduce the risk of exposure to toxic chemicals and the subsequent health effects. However, there is a much larger issue that ultimately needs to be addressed. When the global media promotes the aesthetics of all colors and races, and celebrates ethnic diversity instead of pigeonholing beauty ideals, women and the whole of society will benefit in more ways than just health.



[1] Zota AR, Shamasunder B. (2017). The environmental injustice of beauty: framing chemical exposures from beauty products as a health disparities concern. Am J Obstet Gynecol.

[2] Branch, F, Woodruff, T.J, Mitro, S.D, and Zota, AR. (2015). Vaginal douching and racial/ethnic disparities in phthalates exposures among reproductive-aged women: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2001-2004. Environ Health. 14: 1–8

[3] accessed on the 29/Aug/2017.


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