There is a common expression women like to use. Beauty hurts. Like it is a thing that has to be earned, worked for. So much elbow grease goes into refining and polishing women into a nice glossy palatable shine. It turns out there just might be some truth to this.
A new study by the George Washington University in the US shows our deepest fears about beauty products are not without reason. It so happens women of colour – Latina, Asian-American and Black – are right to be concerned. We ingest more toxins than Caucasian women. These are in the form of formaldehyde, parabens, lead and mercury. Products that can lead to infertility, hormone disruption and the now ubiquitous cancer.
The problem is our interpretation of beauty. Women of colour have succumbed to the Western standard of beauty and in order to achieve that, use more products resulting in the presence of far more toxins in our bodies.
Toxicology reports have revealed skin lighteners, hair straightening products and, oddly, products that mask body odours that target women of colour have more toxins in their ingredient list. Women of colour have long complained about how their needs are not addressed by the market leading to creative solutions, some of which have clearly led to this very situation. Cosmetics working with the nuances and subtleties of our complexions as black women for instance, run across a wide spectrum that is more than simply light skinned and dark skinned. Hair textures have not had products embracing the kinky nature of our hair till recently, and even then, they are more of niche products. Mainstream hair care available for the black woman has for the better part of the century been designed to make hair manageable by altering its innate texture.
The lead scientist, Dr Ami Zota, a professor in environmental and occupational health, initially spent her time over decades researching the use of chemicals in beauty products. Only recently did she decide to turn her attention to racial impact. Here is where it gets more bizarre. The most intriguing part of this study, The environmental injustice of beauty: framing chemical exposures from beauty products as a health disparities concern, written alongside Dr Bhavna Shamasunder, is feminine hygiene products.
Hot off the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, apparently African American women have been trained to believe they are in possession of an odour, which led to an ever growing business of feminine hygiene products for douching, vaginal wipes, deodorising and using talc powder on and around the genitals. This, it becomes evident, was a way to shame black women’s sexuality. It has proven quite successful if the number of over the counter feminine hygiene products in the Kenyan market is anything to go by. Despite warnings by healthcare professionals against douching, using wipes and the discovery that talc powder has in fact led to a lawsuit that was ruled against Johnson & Johnson earlier in the year, women still insist on fragrancing an already fragrant rose garden.
Dr Zota states douching alone increases exposure to a chemical called DEP (phthalic acid) by 150 per cent. Phthalates are best described as “a family of industrial chemicals used to soften PVC plastic and as solvents in cosmetics and other consumer products, can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system — particularly the developing testes — according to animal studies.” DEP is found in fragrant beauty products and she says, causes birth defects and causes health issues for women. And while initially feminine hygiene products were marketed to target African-American women, now the practise persists independent of advertising to become the norm.
This is the same philosophy behind good hair which some studies have found contains estrogen, triggering earlier than usual development in young girls and also possibly causing tumours. As for skin lightening, we are familiar with all those horror stories about the kidney-destroying mercury. That despite bans by the FDA, mercury still finds its way in the US, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. And let us not even pretend. Kenyans are not exempt from “kutoa tint”. Combine all these findings with growing up in poverty stricken areas with high pollution and what Dr Zota identifies as institutionalism racism (or poverty) and the burden on a woman’s body is overwhelmingly toxicated. Yes. Beauty hurts.