The ugly side of beauty
for women of color


When she was 9 years old, Megan Green walked into a hair salon. It was almost Easter Sunday, and her family had a tradition of dressing to the nines for the holiday.

On top of the new outfits her mother usually bought for her and her siblings, Green was getting her hair done for the first time.

"For Easter, it was new everything; new outfits — one for church and one for after church," said Green. "After getting the outfits, hair was the next task."

But her excitement was short-lived. The stylist refused to do her hair and told Green her hair was too thick. 

"It was supposed to be special. They stole that moment," said Green. "My hair wasn't good enough."

Her parents decided to start doing hair treatments at home. They went to the store, picked up a box of hair relaxing products and created a home salon.

Green is a black woman, and she had her hair regularly permed until she was a sophomore in college. Every six to eight weeks, she sat in her bathroom at home for hours to straighten her hair. As she grew older, she realized that as products were piled high onto her head, numerous dangerous chemicals seeped deep into her skin.

"It was really just a way of life," said Green, who is now 26. "You grow up thinking that this is what you have to do if you want your hair to be straight and if you want it to look good."

Her parents laid down strict rules to this beauty routine. They warned: "Don't scratch your head before you get a perm." When she didn't listen, she'd pay the price.

"There have been times where I've washed my hair, and I got a perm the next day, and I had scabs everywhere," Green said. "Scabs, all in the middle of my scalp."

Beauty routines like Green's are usually accompanied by side effects like scabs and an additional, unwanted companion: the lingering residue of harmful chemicals. These chemicals make up a large percentage of beauty products, and many of them are absorbed into the skin and bloodstream.

U.S. laws regulating the $445-billion beauty industry haven't changed since 1938. On an average day, women are exposed to 168 chemicals from a dozen or more beauty products. A study from American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, funded in part by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, suggests those numbers are even higher for a woman of color.

I don't think the burden should be on the consumer..."

Bhavna Shamasunder

The co-authors of the study, Ami Zota and Bhavna Shamasunder, assistant professors at George Washington University and Occidental College, looked at products that women of color frequently use, such as skin-lightening creams, hair straighteners and relaxers, and feminine hygiene products. They found that in 2016, black women were more than nine times more likely to purchase ethnic hair products such as relaxers and straighteners, and that Asian-Americans spend 70 percent more than the national average on skin care products.

Common chemicals in these products include hydroquinone and inorganic mercury — chemicals that they say have a stronger presence in the blood levels in women of color.

"Women of color have higher levels of some of these chemicals in their bodies, and they also have worse health outcomes for certain types of diseases," Zota says. "They often use more toxic products, and this can influence the health of their bodies."

According to Shamsunder and Zota black women are more susceptible to problems caused by hair care products, but other women of color encounter side effects from a variety of personal care products. Skin bleaching and skin lighteners primarily affect Asian communities, while makeup is used by many women of color use to fit into a standard of beauty.

This standard, Shamasunder says, dictates beauty routines of women all over the world, and it's a standard that may cost them their health. Despite the research, women continue to purchase and use products that may harm them.

A few years ago, Green started to ween herself off of perms and began growing out her natural hair. She started her own line of natural hair products and gave up relaxers years ago. But Green isn't every woman of color. 

To some women, beauty is seen as more than just an industry — it's a way of life, and it's a way to be accepted in their communities. And beauty is what some women of color may be willing to sacrifice their health for.


The Food and Drug Administration regulates beauty products, but the rules are minimal, and the list of chemical ingredients allowed to be used in beauty products grows by the decade.

That ingredient list has now grown to over 80,000 chemicals, and most consumers aren't aware of that, says Shamasunder.

"All beauty products have undisclosed ingredients," said Shamasunder. "So, all people who use beauty products or all personal care products are exposed to things they might not know are in their products."

This was a problem the Environmental Working Group (EWG) wanted to fix. EWG is a non-profit group that advocates for environmental policy in the U.S. In 2004, the organization launched the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database to list potential hazards and concerns for consumers. The database now lists more than 74,000 products from over 2,100 brands.

For each product, the database lists the product type, the product use, target demographic and a score between one and 10 that lists the product as safe or unsafe by EWG standards. The goal of these standards: Avoiding harmful ingredients and providing full transparency from the company and "good manufacturing practices."

In 2016, EWG found that after testing over 1,100 products marketed to black women, one in 12 were rated "highly hazardous." Among those, hair relaxers were of major concern, scoring an average of 8.1 on the EWG scale.

Hair relaxers often contain parabens and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, chemicals that have been listed as hormone disrupters and carcinogens. However, they may not be the most dangerous personal care product that women of color use.

Shamasunder says that label belongs to skin lighteners and skin bleaching products. These products are sold domestically and internationally, and they've been reported to contain mercury on their ingredients list.

"We know a lot about mercury and the hazards it poses to reproductive health and memory," said Shamasunder. "The fact that it's still available in many global markets and with mercury in it is, I think, a huge problem."

On a global scale, the European Union has banned over 1,300 chemical ingredients from use in beauty products. That's a drastic difference from the U.S., where the FDA has banned 11 chemicals.

Guy Langer, former president of Beauty Industry West, a society for chemists on the West Coast, says the FDA is a "self-policing" industry that provides minimal regulation when it comes to cosmetics.

Langer says the most policing the FDA does is check on a product's effect on the skin, such as burns.

"There was the Brazilian hair story that where [people] put [products] on their scalp and their scalps burned and they had splotches," said Langer. "That's when the FDA will react." 

What Langer refers to is a Brazilian Blowout, a hairstyling process that temporarily straightens hair by smoothing out keratin, a prominent protein fiber in hair One key ingredient in Brazilian Blowouts is formaldehyde, a known carcinogen and allergen.

During the hair treatments, liquids are applied to the hair and heated using a combination of blow dryers and flat irons. This heat causes formaldehyde to be released into the air, affecting the customer and the hair stylist.

In 2016, EWG sued the FDA for lack of regulation regarding formaldehyde in Brazilian Blowouts. EWG alleged that the FDA has known about this issue since 2008.

In response, the FDA issued warning letters to two companies: Brazilian Blowout and Van Tibolli Beauty Corp. In the letters, the FDA issued safety citations, stating that the products were emitting formaldehyde fumes. No laws or policies were changed, and formaldehyde still exists in these products.

Shamasunder says women of color who use beauty products may be unaware of the ingredients, but the FDA doesn't have the capacity to test every single product in the United States. She said more policies, like regulation of chemical and ingredient transparency from big companies, are needed to govern the industry.

Calculate your exposure

Click the products you use to see the chemicals you're exposed to.


No lush plants or greenery are growing in the pots outside the doors of Black Women for Wellness (BWW). Lined along the side of the building are small painted rocks with the words "empowerment," "love" and "Black Mamas Matter."

BWW is a reproductive justice health organization for black women and girls in South Los Angeles. In 2015, BWW conducted a survey and found that black women spend nearly $9 billion a year on beauty products. For the money, they receive a vast amount of chemicals that include carcinogens with known links to reproductive health issues.

I think women should be able to use whatever products we want to use..."

Stacy Malkan

Marissa Chan, environmental research and policy coordinator at BWW, works to educate black women and girls about the hazards of using beauty products. In Chan's opinion, chemical exposure happens to all women of color, but black women are at a significant disadvantage. Her biggest outreach is through salon workers, whom she suggests are at the most risk.

"Black women are often the most ignored and most marginalized," Chan says. "People don't really think about them when they work on specific products."

One ingredient that poses the biggest threat is fragrance. Stacy Malkan, author of Not Just a Pretty Face and founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, said the lack of ingredient transparency makes them so toxic, especially when it comes to fragrance.

"We don't know what's in them because the companies don't have to tell us," Malkan said.

In an attempt to study the fragrances, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics tested different products to break down the fragrances. They found that fragrances contained allergens and hormone-disrupting chemicals. She also says that fragrances affect people differently, so what may be an allergen to one person could have a different effect on someone else.

"Symptoms manifest in different ways," Malkan says, "but 30 percent [of people] report some sort of negative effects from fragrance, and that number is much higher if they suffer from asthma, like 40 percent."

Almost all people are exposed to fragrances from personal care products, but Malkan also says that women of color use more products than white women and therefore are more likely to be experience health effects — and there's a reason why.

"Cultural beauty standards are certainly a big part of that," Malkan said.

Malkan says women of color feel the need to meet a certain standard of beauty, which stems from how society markets the beauty industry.

EWG reports say the top five harmful products in beauty products marketed toward black women are retinyl palmitate, DMDM hydantoin, methylparaben, propylparaben and fragrance. These chemicals are listed as potential hormone disrupters and carcinogens, but they aren't always listed on the products.

This transparency is what Chan advocates for when it comes to hair stylists in the industry. As women of color continue to expose themselves to fumes and toxins from these products, they become more at risk for experiencing negative side effects. Chan said not all stylists are aware of the dangerous chemicals in their products.

Because of this lack of transparency, Chan's goal for BWW is to focus on policy and regulation. In 2016, the organization worked on AB-1575, a bill for companies to clearly label ingredients in beauty products sold in California. The bill was sponsored by Black Women for Wellness, California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, Californians for a Healthy & Green Economy, and Women's Voices for the Earth.

When stylists don't know the ingredients, Chan says, the chemical exposure goes unnoticed by both the consumer and the producer.

"Currently, professional products are not required to list their ingredients," Chan says. "Stylists don't have the option to know what's in their products and decide for themselves if they want to use it or not."

AB-1575 cleared the Assembly Environmental Safety committee on 4-2 vote, but died in the California State Senate. Chan says that they're keeping tabs on other bills, like the Personal Care Products Safety Act, which is sponsored by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

The act would "require cosmetics companies to submit to the FDA cosmetic ingredient statements that include the amounts of a cosmetic's ingredients." But that bill is currently at a standstill, says Chan.

And while there are no plans to reintroduce AB-1575, Chan says that BWW continues to educate black women — with or without the policies.

"Black women definitely care," Chan says. "They've just never been given the chance to learn about it."


Angela Johnson paints in shades called "chestnut" and "sunkissed." She sometimes uses glitter, carefully maneuvers jet-black ink and locks in the paint with a few pumps of liquid sealant. Johnson says she produces art every day, but she's talking about makeup.

Johnson runs an Instagram account called @swatchyswatchy. On this account, she "swatches," or tests, makeup products for her audience on different skin tones. She describes her skin as "medium-toned" by way of her African-American and Filipino heritage.

"A lot of the shades that are shown [on Instagram] are lighter tones, and it's kind of a little discouraging for my tone to be the ‘darker tone,'" Johnson says. "I think about the girls that are darker than me or the girls that are extremely light that don't get represented as much."

It's a concept where women with lighter skin and straight hair are more accepted in society while dark-skinned women are not, something Shamasunder and Zota call "racial stratification."

"[Women] are very influenced by Western notions of beauty where whiteness and features associated with Caucasians are deemed more beautiful," Zota says. "Women of color are using some products as a response to those beauty norms."

The idea of "whiteness" dates back to ancient Asian traditions, where lighter skin was commonly seen on people of higher societal rank. Since then, most women of color have taken this ideology with them in beauty routines and products.

Raina Singh, an international USC student from India, says skin bleaching is common practice for women in her community. Singh says women and men bleach their skin because of the Indian community's "obsession with whiteness."

"Indians are already tan — they do not want to be tanner," said Singh. "I [bleach my skin] because my hair is dark and I like the way it looks."

Singh says the method for lightening skin has evolved from using natural ingredients to store-bought products. One well-known skin lightener that frequents the Indian community is 'Fair and Lovely.'' Singh says that her maid, who travels between her hometown and Singh's home, uses the product regularly.

"She hates going home because she has to work in the fields again and she'll get dark," Singh said. "She likes being [at my house] because she stays inside the house and wears sunscreen."

I've used organic relaxers — they don't work."

Chanel Minnifield

Chanel Minnifield, a black woman living in Los Angeles, says that she gets her hair relaxed knowing that there are chemicals that may be harmful to her health. Minnifield says she relaxes her hair for the aesthetics.

"I have a really, really sensitive scalp, so I'm literally always dying at the time [I get my hair relaxed]," said Minnifield. "But it's worth going through it because my hair's looking really cute, super silky, super straight."

Minnifield argues that while she may get relaxers, she doesn't believe that women of color are more susceptible to chemical exposure as researchers say they are.

"White women are more likely to get breast implants than black women," said Minnifield. "They're more likely to get injections than black women."

It's an argument that Malkan says she continually comes across. Malkan argues that while chemical exposure is in small doses, the constant application of a certain product, like skin lighteners or makeup, will eventually build up.

"A lot of products have the same chemical, so you're continually getting exposed again and again at the low level of the same percentages," said Malkan. "The exposures are low, but they're continual. And there are many, many low level toxic exposures that we're putting on our bodies every day."

While she does her research, Johnson still enjoys working with makeup. The risks don't worry her, and she's pretty confident about it. So, will harmful chemicals stop women of color from using makeup? For Johnson, it probably won't.

"No one needs makeup, but if something makes you feel better, I'm all for it," Johnson says.

So, what's a health-conscious consumer to do?

In an ideal world, consumers wouldn't have to worry about this. Regulators like the FDA would prevent companies from using the chemicals in the first place, says Shamasunder.

But in the absence of a stronger regulatory response, women continue to use beauty products despite the hazards. Chemical exposure is embedded into their routines, and finding products without chemicals will always require research. That research is even more drawn out for women of color. Chemical exposure is inevitable, but Shamasunder says that shouldn't be anyone's problem.

"Whether or not a woman cares shouldn't matter," Shamasunder says. "It should be taken out of that context; she shouldn't have to care."