The use of chemicals and potentially toxic makeup to meet societal expectations of beauty isn’t a new phenomenon. From ancient Egyptians who wore toxic eyeliner, to women in the 19th century covering their faces in opium while they slept, beauty products have been compromising health for centuries.
Recently, cosmetic companies have become more cunning in disguising the harmful effects of their products. With the advent of the Internet and photoshop, Eurocentric standards of beauty have become more unrealistic—especially for women of colour.
Beauty standards in Western cultures favour certain European features—including long straight hair, large eyes, a small nose, and high cheekbones.
Black women in particular are pressured to use more cosmetics and hair care products to meet Eurocentric standards of beauty. Products targeted to Black women also tend to be more toxic—exposing them to higher levels of dangerous chemicals which can result in serious health issues.
“[Black women] apply way more hair products and skincare products just to fit into standardsof beauty that never had us in mind anyway,” Shamsa Hassan, co-founder of Afiya beauty, said in an interview with The Journal.
Afiya Beauty was founded in 2018 by Hassan and her sister Kaltum to provide women of colour with a natural, safer alternative to conventional beauty products.
“The inspiration came after I had my first son,” Hassan said. “[I was] learning about different topical ingredients that were incredibly carcinogenic and unsafe, especially at the time I was pregnant, so I was really worried.”
The toxic ingredients found in cosmetics are broadly classified as endocrine disruptors—toxins that can interfere with hormone regulation systems in the body.
“Because fertility depends in part on a pattern of hormone activity, alterations to hormone activity can alter fertility,” Sari van Anders, Canada 150 Research Chair in Social Neuroendocrinology, Sexuality, & Gender/Sex, wrote in an email to The Journal.
“They can bind to hormone receptors, which can reduce typical hormone activity or increase it among other mechanisms […] Some of the downstream effects can include changes to hormone signalling required for gamete development or release.”
Fertility issues disproportionately affect women of colour compared to their white counterparts.
These issues aren’t often discussed in communities of colour, which can make women feel isolated and neglected.
“It’s sad to me because I’ve suffered through really difficult pregnancies, and I never felt heard or seen. […] My issues were just swept aside and made me feel like I was the anomaly,” Hassan said.
She expressed frustration with the lack of action taken to protect women of colour from chemicals shown to affect fertility.
“I don’t think there’s been enough of a movement to link those reproductive health issues, especially in communities of colour, to the types of products that we are using every single day.”
One of Afiya Beauty’s main goals is to teach people how to make safer choices when choosing beauty products. Although choosing natural products can be more expensive, Hassan believes the health benefits are worth it.
“It’s not just [an] investment into our business, it’s also an investment into their [customer’s] own health,” she said.
“We cannot compete with drugstore prices, but that’s not our market and that’s not what we do. Once we give [customers] the transparent list of ingredients that we use, why we use [the ingredients], how we source the whole process of how we make our products, they’re a lot more willing to invest.”
Considering the ubiquity of harmful chemicals in everyday products, it can be difficult to begin making changes to reduce exposure—but it’s possible through education and making small changes over time. “Be mindful of what you are consuming. It’s not hard to make quick, easy switches,” Hassan said.
Personal care products and cosmetics are not just for vanity—they’re also a way for women to express their culture and identity. Moreover, self-care rituals can be important traditions and routines within families and communities.
“It was a thing that we did together,” Hassan said. “Sundays was the time that my mom, my grandmother, my aunts, my sisters, we all sat around, and we would make our hair masks and our facial masks.”
These family traditions were important to Hassan because they provided a space for her family to focus on self-care in a way that wasn’t governed by Eurocentric beauty standards.
As a Black woman, Hassan feels that she and, by extension, her family members, aren’t equally represented in the beauty and wellness industry.
“We took care of ourselves in the way that we defined wellness,” Hassan said. “We don’t fit into the stereotypical standards of beauty or wellness and we never saw ourselves represented in that space.”
One of the most toxic kinds of beauty products marketed primarily to women of colour is hair care products for colouring, bleaching, and relaxing.
“Black girls from a very young age are altering their hair texture or using extensions or excessive heat on their naturally kinky, coily hair in order tomake it straighter,” Jada Hollingsworth, ArtSci ’22, said in an interview with The Journal.
“I think the goal in going through many of these processes of straightening, relaxing, perming, or the use of extensions [is] to meet certain societal standards.”
Recently, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an American research entity, established the Skin Deep initiative, which aims to inform the public about hazardous cosmetic products.
Notably, this analysis found that within the category of hair care products targeted toward Black women, there wasn’t a single product that was classified as ‘low hazard.’
While Eurocentric beauty standards loom large, women of colour are often empowered and influenced by the elder women in their families such as moms and aunts.
“[My mom] rocked a short look, when she was in her 20s entering into her 30s,” Hollingsworth said.
“I’m seeing all these photos of my mom with me as a little kid […] I’m like, this woman is gorgeous and I don’t have anything to worry about long-term in terms of going short and taking care of my hair in its natural state.”
Reassurance from older women in the family is bolstered by trends within Black communities that push for more natural hairstyles.
“Natural hair movements tend to follow civil rights movements,” Hollingsworth said. “In the 60s and 70s, there was a big push for natural hair [and] again in the 90s for a little bit.”
“Today you’ll see a lot of content online, with the purpose reaching into that natural beauty, teaching women of colour who may not have had experience dealing with their natural hair ever in their lives […] how to manage their hair, nourish it, what to eat in order to make it grow and behave in a certain way.”
As more research is brought to light about how certain products damage the hair of women of colour over time, many have been advocating for hitting the reset button.
“There’s also a big phenomenon within Black online communities called The Big Chop, which is essentially getting rid of hair that has been damaged over time due to excessive product use and starting [with] a new, typically shorter, head of hair, treating it from its virgin state and making it into what it can become,” Hollingsworth explained.
Despite the appeal of The Big Chop to many women of colour, it’s not feasible for everyone.
“Certain people are in positions where it’s easier said than done,” she said. “Certain schools, certain employment places, and jobs will straight up ban certain hairstyles, and, if not completely banned, discriminate on the basis of somebody wearing their hair in a way that isn’t necessarily presentable.”
“You really do have to assess the position you’re in to be able to do that Big Chop.”
Some of the most common endocrine disruptors found in cosmetic and personal care products are parabens, phthalates, and bisphenol-A (BPA). Although many people may recognize these ingredients from shampoo bottles and other household products, manufacturers have concealed their harmful nature under an obscure, scientific-sounding name.
“Endocrine disruptor exposure is nearly universal now because [parabens, and phthalates, and BPAs] are located in some of our most commonly-used products, from many paints to nail polish to shampoos to plastic food containers,” van Anders said.
“There are individual actions people can take to reduce their own load, but major regulatory change needs to happen […] at federal and international levels to make the bigger difference.”
A loophole that many companies use to avoid disclosing endocrine disruptors in their products is to list them on ingredients lists under “fragrance” or “perfume.”
Fragrances are kept as trade secrets and, as a result, companies do not have to disclose their composition in the list of ingredients to keep competitors from copying their signature scent.
Even if the manufacturers maintain the concentrations of chemicals in their products below a certain threshold mandated by regulations, there is still the possibility of combination effects—additional harmful effects that occur when certain chemicals are present together. As a result, the cocktail of endocrine disruptors may have more adverse health effects that would not have occurred with a single chemical.
While everyone is affected by these gaps in government regulations, people of colour tend to have the highest body burden, yet they tend to be neglected in research.
Many studies have found that women of colour are exposed to higher concentrations of neuroendocrine disruptors, however little to no research has been done on why these differences occur.
Many hypothesize that differences in cosmetic product choice and usage contribute to these disparities. This hypothesis has not been confirmed, however, research on the contents of these products gives good reason to believe that cosmetic products are a likely culprit.
The health consequences of beauty products take time to manifest and are neither visible nor obvious. This makes looking for safer alternatives seem like a non-pressing issue.
“If something works, you don’t fix it if it’s not broken,” Hassan said. “If your hair looks great, your skin feels great and you’ve used it, and your mom’s been using it, and your aunts have been using it, your girlfriends use it—that’s all you know.”
Hassan hopes that Afiya Beauty will start a conversation that will get people to re-evaluate what products they use every day.
“Nobody wanted to come in and provide better alternatives because there just there wasn’t a disruption in the beauty industry. [The cosmetics industry] catered to a very specific, very Eurocentric, white-centric version of beauty and anybody else who’s on the periphery got the shitty product.”
Afiya Beauty is unique in that they hold the health of their customers as one of their central values and target their natural products toward women of colour.
“Our unique value proposition is that we really do have the best health interest in mind of women and women’s reproductive health,” Hassan said.
Although competing with large companies that use harmful ingredients in their products can be daunting, Hassan believes it’s within reach.
“It’s really unnecessary for these larger companies to use such harsh chemicals and such harsh parabens in their formulas because there are alternatives,” she said.
“If there is better education and awareness around these issues. I think that people will make better decisions.”