Make-up, skin, and hair care products are historically connected to women and the outward positioning of femininity. Beauty goods are marketed toward women to look and feel desirable— whether to attract a mate or secure a job— women are conditioned to become cosmetic consumers and participate in societal expectations to thrive in this patriarchal culture.
Cosmetic brands have used this blueprint to perpetuate high product demand causing harmful production customs. And no group is impacted more than the BIPOC community—particularly black women. Black women are the most prominent beauty consumers and therefore are the most vulnerable to the beauty industry’s capitalist practices—including exposure to hazardous ingredients.
Toxic Ingredients Are a Capitalist Commodity
Beauty companies are in the business of building high-margin products. They do this by using cheaper ingredients that stretch the shelf- life without consideration of the short and long-term effects on consumer health. According to Marissa Chan, Environmental Researcher and Policy Manager at Black Women Wellness based in Los Angeles, “Black women are some of the most over-exposed and under-protected to toxic chemicals in personal care products.” In fact, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) studied over 1200 products marketed to black women and found that products with non-hazardous ingredients were less available to this demographic—a huge disparity considering black women make up 11% of the beauty market but only 14% of the population. Black women are also 39% likely to die from breast cancer and suffer from reproductive health issues, uterine fibroids, and early puberty. There are countless ingredients in skincare products that have been linked to these health issues.
Formaldehyde is an agent used in skin and hair products to preserve their shelf-life. The chemical acts as an antimicrobial, blocking bacteria exposure. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies Formaldehyde as a group 1 carcinogen. The chemical also has contact effects leading to dermatitis, skin blisters, and throat irritation.
Hydroquinone is a bleaching agent that decreases melanocytes on the skin and is used in bleaching products targeted at melanated groups to fade hyperpigmentation and lighten the skin. It causes rashes, and redness and, over time, can develop Ochronosis and mercury poisoning.
Phthalates are a toxic property also found in many products used to maintain the scent in body washes, lotions, facial moisturizers, perfumes, and hair products. Phthalates are dangerous as they are classified as endocrine disruptors that are linked to hormone changes and thyroid irregularities.
Parabens are a chemical in many skin care products marketed toward black women. Like Formaldehyde, Parabens are chemicals used to preserve, and most companies would argue to protect the products and the consumer from the risk of contamination. Paraben mimics the hormone estrogen and can disrupt the reproductive system's natural functions, causing infertility and birth defects.
There is controversy around the idea that exposure to these chemicals is not a racial issue. As mentioned, research shows black women make up most of the beauty market but have the least access to non-toxic options. Like many issues in the United States, this is the direct impact of redlining, a discriminatory practice where government corporations separate geographical areas labeled as “dangerous”—withholding investment dollars that would otherwise open access to quality resources, including retail stores, health care, education, etc.
Sixteen percent of people of color live in low-income neighborhoods compared to 4% of white people. Shamasunder, the co-author of this new study, stated, “For women who live in already polluted neighborhoods, beauty product chemicals may add to their overall burden of exposure to toxic chemicals.” No matter what angle we approach the issue, corporations are intentional about where their money is invested. Like any business, they study their product and target demographic, so implying this isn’t a racial and classicist issue is a dangerous oversight as it prolongs mitigation.
Access to Non-Toxic Ingredients Is a Human Right
Health and safety are fundamental human rights that should not be policed or subjected to a class system. Capitalism has clouded our perspective of human rights versus luxury. If we want to cleanse our faces or moisturize our skin without the risk of exposure to poisonous ingredients, we should be afforded that right without a cost penalty. While there is nothing inherently wrong with luxury, it is simply a desire for access. If the goal is to not only cleanse the skin but achieve a 14kt glow in the process, then the cleanser should be expected to cost more. The BIPOC community cannot begin to realize luxury if even the basic needs are not met.
More access to non-toxic options will require deconstructing outdated business models, which could take decades. As a result, we see more marginalized groups starting their own businesses.
Supporting Independent Black Owned Is the Only Solution
When we build brands and become profitable large conglomerates, see dollar signs and offer to acquire. There are pros and cons to these deals, but the issue we see replicated is the change of formula and erasure of the community that helped build the brand. We saw this play out in 2014 when popular hair and skincare brand Carol’s Daughter sold to L’Oréal. In the hair care space, Shea Moisture was acquired by Unilever. In the feminine products arena, Honey Pot founder Beatrice Dixon received backlash for an unannounced formula change, her reasoning being that “the global supply chain does not always have the necessary ingredients.” And while Beatrice has not yet sold, it is a long-term goal for Honey Pot. Changing the formula is often the prerequisite to selling or it occurs after acquirement. Selling, however, doesn’t always have to be the end goal and can be harmful to some independent brands, depending on their goals and the acquisition deal.
More black women are reclaiming their power and building their skincare businesses without corporate backing. Supporting brands like Bellavana Beauty is an investment in community health and the collective change we want to see in the cosmetics industry. Bellavana Beauty offers an array of skincare products that are 100% non-toxic and plant-based. Our unique blend of ingredients like Shea Butter, Aloe Vera, and Jojoba oil paired with active ingredients like Hyaluronic Acid and Ceramides make Bellavana products safe and highly effective. We are committed to ingredient transparency and encourage customers to inquire about what they're applying to their bodies in all aspects of life. Education on black health and wellness is a crucial component missing in the market, and we’re devoted to closing the gaps. Who better to build products that suit the needs of women of color than women of color? There is a profound trust and experience that cannot be imitated.
People Over Profit Is the New Wave
We are in a culture that celebrates independent ownership in all industries. Companies that once held so much power are sweating. Their resistance to change is catching up and forcing them to re-brand. Our generation of consumers is ushering in a new standard, and we’re demanding safe, high-quality products for everyone. Beauty brands have spent decades taking shortcuts. Now their time is being cut short, and brands like Bellavana Beauty are stepping in.
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Keywords: black women toxic products, women of color toxic products