Toxic Inequities in Personal Care Products

Dr. Jeniffer McPartland, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) health program has written a blog post on how science can explain inequity and in personal care and beauty products

Dr. McPartland begins by pointing out that we are used to thinking of issues of environmental injustice in terms of geographies. For example, we think of the lead contamination in terms of Flint, Michigan, or oil spills in terms of the Gulf of Mexico. Though geography certainly plays a determinative role in a person’s overall health, issues of environmental injustice and racism go beyond issues of geography and include inequities in how different groups are exposed to toxic substances in personal care products. For instance, products targeted at women of color typically have more toxic ingredients than those made for white women. Consequently, women of color are exposed to toxic ingredients far more than white women, even though there are more white women then there are people of color. 

Dr. McPartland cites a seminal study by Ami Zota and Bhavna Shamasunder, which looks at how the differentiated exposure to toxic ingredients is an issue of health disparities. There are numerous other studies cited by Dr. McPartland in her in-depth blog post. These studies leave a profound impression that women of color are exposed to sometimes startling levels of toxic ingredients, and face health consequences that white women either do not face or face at much lower levels. 

The big picture answer to this is that Congress has to enact legislation that controls what ingredients can be put in personal care products, and which toughens up the consequences that manufacturers face in the event that they expose their consumers to certain toxic substances. 

Yet, the big picture answer is one that is unsatisfying to a consumer who makes decisions on a regular basis about what products they can buy. While policy makers and personal care manufacturers wrestle with the prospect of new legislation, the ordinary consumer is left with no real hope for meaningful action. However, there are resources that consumers can use to help them decide on what products to use. For instance, the Silent Spring Institute, Black Women for Wellness and WEACT, came together to develop a set of useful tips women of color can use to help them to avoid toxic products. 

The evidence is overwhelming: exposure to toxic ingredients has real consequences for women of color and can put their health in great danger. Everyone deserves to have access to personal care products that will not put them at risk of developing some disease or condition. 
The truth is that even though there are many manufacturers who use toxic ingredients in ways that disproportionately affect women of color, there are personal care products that are free from these toxic ingredients and do not put the health of women of color in harm’s way. Not only are there personal care products free of toxic ingredients or at least toxic levels of certain ingredients, there are courses, such as the Avant powder brow course, where issues of toxic ingredients are taken very seriously. Personal care practitioners are taught to treasure the health of their clients by using environmentally-friendly products, products that are not a danger to women of color.