Environmental racism exists in our beauty products and needs to be addressed – Advice Eating

Jennifer Ortega, Research Analyst, Environmental Health

Environmental racism is everywhere. At the neighborhood level, communities of color often experience poorer air quality, less green space, or face more extreme temperatures. At the household level, black and low-income families are at higher risk of lead in their drinking water and higher levels of debt and energy insecurity. Inequalities are evident even in the items we use every day, with personal care products marketed to women of color often containing more toxic ingredients than those marketed to white women.

These toxic exposures are not determined by individual choices, but by where one lives, where one works, and cultural beauty standards and norms. A new Personal Care Products Story Map (also available in Spanish) consolidates federal labor and census data, as well as information from public health studies, to show how the overlap of various factors in racial differences manifests itself in exposure to toxic ingredients in personal care products. The map is part of an interactive web series led by Tamarra James-Todd, Ph.D., and her team at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

Neighborhoods with more toxic hair products ─ The availability of safe products may vary depending on where you live.

The team of dr. James-Todd evaluated the safety of hair products available in seven Boston boroughs using product ratings from the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. In the Roxbury area, 50% more hair products sold were classified as highly hazardous than in Beacon Hill, a few miles north. In the Roxbury neighborhood, 51% of residents are black and 34% of residents live in poverty. In the Beacon Hill neighborhood, 2% of residents are black and 8% of residents live in poverty.

Access plays a crucial role in differential exposure to toxic chemicals. The information from the story map underscores the need for safe personal care products to be readily available in all retail outlets. These safer products must also be affordable.

Strong injustices for certain workers ─ Where you work can affect exposure to certain toxic chemicals.

According to the story map, nail salon workers have higher levels of certain toxic chemicals in their urine compared to the general population. Products used in nail salons contain many hazardous ingredients including dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde and toluene, among others. These chemicals can cause eye and skin irritation and lead to more serious consequences such as reproductive harm or cancer. Although people of Asian descent make up less than 10% of the US workforce, they make up 76% of all nail salon employees. In addition, 81% of nail salon workers are women and 58% are of reproductive age (ie 25-44 years old) and are at potentially higher risk of suffering health effects from exposure to toxic chemicals.

Nail salon employees are often particularly vulnerable to toxic chemicals due to the frequent use of nail products. The story map underscores the need for safer work environments and the need for safer ingredients used by these professionals.

Toxic disparities must be eliminated

It’s clear that there is an urgent need for clean beauty justice – affordable, safer personal care products for people of color. The provisions of the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act relating to cosmetics have not been significantly updated since 1938. Since then, countless cosmetic and personal care product ingredients have been released without the need for review or approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Scientific sources such as the Story Map show that making and marketing more toxic personal care products to women of color is a form of environmental racism. Congress, the FDA, and product manufacturers must all step up their efforts to make safer products available, accessible, and affordable for all. Only when all these actors take appropriate steps can we achieve clean beauty justice.

In the meantime, the dissemination of public health research that sheds light on the extent of clean beauty injustice, its causes, and the associated negative health effects is crucial. Tools like the Story Map that guide the audience through the data help educate everyone about these toxic injustices in an accessible way.

Visit the new Environmental Racism Story Map and take their poll (Spanish version) to share your own insights on how the map is helping to raise awareness of this issue.

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