EWG

Black women beware: Good hair could be bad for you.

In an analysis of nearly 1,200 products marketed toward African-American personal-care shoppers, the Environmental Working Group found one in 12 products rated highly hazardous, according to its ingredient scoring system and less than 25 percent of the merchandise was deemed to be low in hazardous chemicals compared to 40 percent of the products aimed at the general public scoring low in hazardous compounds. The worst offenders were hair relaxers, hair colors and bleaching items, but lipsticks, concealers, foundations and sun-protective makeup were also problematic.

“Black women specifically looking for products marketed to their demographic have fewer healthier options when it comes to personal care than the broader audience looking for personal-care products,” said Nneka Leiba, deputy director of research at EWG. “Black women buy and use more personal-care products than other demographics based on market-share data, so that means they are being exposed to more potentially hazardous chemicals.”

EWG has collected data on personal-care ingredients for more than a dozen years and elected to take a deeper look at those in products targeting African-American women during the years 2014 and 2015. The organization scours personal-care ingredient lists for chemicals it considers harmful, and scores products in its so-called Skin Deep database from one to 10 with one to two suggesting low risk, three to six moderate risk and seven to 10 high risk. Hair relaxers scored an average of 8.1.

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The trade organization Personal Care Products Council takes issue with the Skin Deep database and, in a statement from its chief toxicologist Linda Loretz, said the database “assumes certain ingredients are hazardous, despite the fact that they have been found safe for use in cosmetics by expert bodies.” She declared EWG’s evaluation of personal-care merchandise directed at black women is “speculative, misleading and does not use sound science to assess the safety of ingredients.”

The PCPC maintains personal-care companies are committed to product safety. “Families who use cosmetics and personal-care products, regardless of their background, can feel confident that they are protected by a combination of federal safety regulations and a strong commitment by manufacturers to utilize the best science and latest available research data to substantiate the safety of a cosmetic product before it is marketed,” said Loretz. “Companies employ tens of thousands of scientific and medical experts who are devoted to studying the safety of human health in relation to products and the ingredients used in them.”

The perils of harsh hair products meant to straighten hair have long been documented, and EWG cited studies showing links between chemical straighteners and forms of baldness, premature births and low infant birth rate. Studies have also highlighted hairstylists’ exposure to potentially harmful chemicals within salons frequented by black women. In its analysis, EWG discovered hair relaxers contain parabens and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, ingredients it contends should be excised from personal-care products.

Leiba has had personal experiences with the consequences of relaxer application. “I used to relax my hair and I knew I would come out with burns, but I guess what I had was straight hair at the end of the day. If had known that these products could potentially affect my unborn baby, that puts it into a whole new perspective. That’s a big deal,” she said, adding, “As a black woman, I want something that works and, then, I want something with fewer ingredients of concern. I am aware of the issue, and the first step is to become aware of the issue.”

Whether out of awareness of the ingredients, avoidance of irritation, beauty trends or political stances, black women are moving away from relaxers. EWG pointed out research firm Mintel estimates sales of hair relaxers marketed to African-American women declined almost 40 percent between 2008 and 2015. As market forces surge toward natural hair solutions, EWG examined relaxer alternatives. “The quote unquote natural products score better than relaxers, but they still have ingredients of concern,” said Leiba.

As for makeup products intended for African-American consumers, EWG determined they often were formulated with long-chained propylparaben and butylparaben. Parabens are a controversial family of preservatives, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has decided that available information doesn’t demonstrate they have adverse impacts on human health. EWG’s assessment revealed the products marketed to African-Americans with the least hazardous chemicals were bar soaps, body oils, moisturizers and body washes and cleansers.

“We want to hold everyone to the same standard, and black women should have the same level of healthy products as everyone else,” said Leiba. “At the end of the day, all products need to step up. Products marketed to men, women and children generally are not as safe and healthy as they should be.” Countering Leiba’s assertions, Loretz said of EWG that “the group does not use sound scientific principles or peer-reviewed data as the basis for its claims. The analysis in this report is fundamentally flawed, and the conclusions are not meaningful.”

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