Dereliction of Beauty: How Lax Regulation of Beauty Care Products Victimizes Women of Color

5 December 2023

The use of toxic chemicals in beauty care products disproportionately affects women of color, leading to serious health risks and environmental injustice.

For decades, women of color have been unknowingly subjecting themselves to harmful chemicals in beauty care products. The lax regulation of these products has resulted in serious health risks, particularly for Black women who use chemical hair straighteners. The recent proposal by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban formaldehyde and other formaldehyde-releasing chemicals in hair straightening products has shed light on the need for stricter regulations and greater awareness of the dangers faced by women of color.

The Cultural Significance of Hair for Women of Color

The use of beauty care products, particularly hair care products, has deep cultural significance for women of color. In the 1970s, many Black women embraced natural hair styles as a symbol of self-empowerment and a return to their cultural roots. However, societal pressures and the pursuit of certain careers led many women to use chemical straighteners, often containing formaldehyde, to achieve a more “professional” look. This shift in hair care practices has had long-lasting health consequences.

The Link Between Chemical Straighteners and Cancer

The use of formaldehyde-based hair straighteners has been linked to an increased risk of cancer, particularly endometrial and breast cancer. A study by the National Institutes of Health found that women who used formaldehyde-based hair straightening products at least four times a year had a higher risk of uterine cancer. Black women, who use these products more frequently, are particularly vulnerable to these health risks. The proposed ban by the FDA is a step towards protecting the health of women of color.

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The Inadequate Regulation of Beauty Care Products

The FDA’s lack of authority to regulate cosmetic products and their ingredients has allowed potentially harmful substances to be used in beauty care products without proper oversight. While other countries, such as those in Europe, have banned thousands of chemicals from cosmetics, the U.S. has only banned 11. The Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act, set to go into effect soon, will expand the FDA’s authority but does not address the most toxic substances used in beauty products.

The Environmental Injustice of Beauty

Women of color face disproportionate exposure to harmful chemicals in beauty products due to societal beauty norms and discrimination. These norms prioritize Eurocentric beauty standards, leading to the use of more toxic products to achieve these standards. Black women, in particular, face pressure to maintain their hair using products that contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which can impact reproductive health. The lack of regulation and awareness perpetuates environmental injustice and poor health outcomes for women of color.

Conclusion: The lax regulation of beauty care products has had severe consequences for women of color, particularly Black women. The proposed ban on formaldehyde in hair straightening products is a step in the right direction, but more comprehensive regulation is needed to protect the health and well-being of women of color. The environmental injustice of beauty must be addressed, and greater awareness of the risks associated with beauty care products should be promoted. It is time to prioritize the health and safety of all consumers, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

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