How the beauty industry is hurting women of color

Illustration of a Black woman looking in shock at her hair that has fallen out due to the harsh chemicals in beauty treatments
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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Cleanser, moisturizer, concealer, eyeshadow, mascara, powder. Repeat. Does this routine sound familiar? Many women have a regimented daily beauty routine that consists of cabinets full of assorted skincare, haircare and makeup products. Women use a lot of beauty products in an effort to make themselves feel and look better, but using more products causes increased exposure to a wider variety of harmful chemicals. This reality is disproportionately harmful to women of color, particularly Black women, because they invest more money into hair and beauty products than white women. The fact that Black women are disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals in cosmetic products illustrates how the beauty industry is an environmental justice hazard. 

So, why exactly do Black women use more beauty products? The answer lies in the history of colorism and racism that has repeatedly emphasized eurocentric beauty while degrading the physical features of Black women. Even among the Black community, colorism has caused societal beauty standards to favor lighter-skinned Black women over darker-skinned Black women. As a result, Black women have been expected to change their physical features to conform to those of white women. In professional settings, Black women who wear their hair naturally have their hairstyles considered unprofessional. This delivers a message that women of color must try to look as white as possible if they want to meet standards of professionalism. 

In order to adapt to white standards of beauty, many Black women use hair relaxers to straighten their curly hair, they flat iron their curly hair using heat tools that extensively damage natural hair, they use shampoo marketed toward Black women to smooth their curly hair textures and some even use skin-lightening creams. These cosmetic products that Black women use contain many harmful chemicals. For example, skin-lightening creams contain mercury, hydroquinone and steroids. Depending on a person’s health and other factors, mercury exposure may cause behavioral irregularity, tremors and deteriorating eyesight, while hydroquinone is known to be a skin irritant that can also cause eyesight problems. Hair relaxers contain sodium hydroxide, or lye, which can cause chemical burns and blindness. 

Cosmetic companies use harmful marketing strategies to encourage Black women to buy specific products that are supposed to make them more beautiful, which is to say, more white. For example, some skin-lightening cream manufacturers display advertisements that show women with half their faces black and half their faces white. This marketing strategy is meant to contrast the desired beauty of whiteness with negative stereotypes of Blackness so that manufacturers can profit off of Black women who want to meet eurocentric standards of beauty. Additionally, certain hair products marketed toward Black women with the intent of “improving” their hair textures contain carcinogens and hormone-disrupting compounds such as parabens. These chemicals can cause decreased fertility and an increased risk for developing breast cancer. Phthalates are also found in many cosmetic products and are known for causing asthma, cancer and reproductive issues. 

These problematic marketing strategies are extensions of modern institutionalized racism, in which dark skin tone is perceived to be at the bottom of a racial beauty hierarchy. This hierarchy gives the most value to white women with blonde hair and blue eyes, and the least amount of value to women of color. The fact that many of the products marketed toward Black women contain more toxic chemicals than other products is another example of structural violence and racism. About 40% of beauty products on the market are categorized as low hazard, but fewer than 25% of beauty products marketed specifically toward Black women are considered low hazard. Black women have access to fewer nonhazardous products, which manifests in more harmful health effects. What’s worse, cosmetic companies perpetuate this structural violence when the health and lives of Black people are not prioritized.

The beauty industry glosses over all the damage that it causes, especially to women of color. Currently, federal law doesn’t require the cosmetic industry to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, before it starts selling products to consumers, with the exception of any color additives used. Cosmetic manufacturers aren’t even required to share potential safety hazards with the FDA, and there are no laws requiring companies to recall potentially harmful products. The lack of federal control on cosmetic chemicals gives the beauty industry the freedom to continue distributing toxic chemicals without fear of punishment. The government must do more to protect women, especially Black women. The Environmental Protection Agency must step up by restricting what kinds of chemicals manufacturers can put in cosmetic products. 

In addition to governmental agencies tightly regulating cosmetic companies, it is important for the beauty industry to challenge racist beauty standards so that Black women don’t feel pressured to use so many harmful products. Mainstream media must portray more Black women wearing their hair naturally to represent how Black women have naturally beautiful hair. Beauty brands themselves have a responsibility to showcase more Black women in advertisements to emphasize the beauty of Blackness. 

If we can create our own definitions of beauty by going against what society tells us is beautiful, then we can enact change from the cosmetic companies that have such a profound influence on our health and wellbeing. In order to protect women from exposure to toxic chemicals, the federal government needs to tighten its regulations on the kinds of chemicals that go into beauty products, especially those that are marketed toward women of color. We need to put collective pressure on the FDA to ensure our safety so that we can continue our beauty routines without fearing for our lives.

Lily Yang is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying molecular and cell biology.