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Dangerous beauty: Cosmetics marketed to minorities come with cancer risk

Washington's "Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act" bans the use of chemicals that could increase cancer risks often included in products marketed toward Black women.

WASHINGTON, USA — The State of Washington is cracking down on what’s called “dangerous beauty” – the use of harmful hair chemicals targeting women of color. For many Black women the pressure to “fit in” is increasing their risk of cancer.

For several clients at Salon Six17 in downtown Seattle, beauty has always been linked to pain.

“I will never forget that burning sensation," said Dr. Monica Rose McLemore, recalling her first time using chemical relaxers to straighten her hair. "I remember feeling like my scalp was on fire."

“I remember getting my hair straightened, and my mom using the hot iron, burning my ear," said client Jamila Conley. "It was so painful for me."

"I remember very well the scabs and you know, the hair and the burns. I did not go back to relaxing my hair until I was in college,” said Jackie Page Christian, owner of Salon Six17.

“Everybody was doing it,” recalled Leslie Christian, a Seattle-based make-up artist. “I wanted the straight hair. I wanted the straight hair.”

McLemore, Conley and Christian represent generations of Black women using hair straightening chemicals- known as ‘relaxers’ that can be painful, costly, and worse: harmful to their health.

All of the women admit they heard chemical hair relaxers were linked to elevated cancer rates, but they knew women who would continue to use them despite the risk.

Now - the State of Washington is taking steps to ban several dangerous chemicals found in cosmetic products marketed to communities of color.

Elevated cancer risk

The cancer risk associated with many chemical hair relaxers has been documented for decades.

A 2022 study by the National Cancer Institute found women using chemical hair-straightening products are at a higher risk of uterine cancer than women who reported not using them.

“Every Black person knows a Black person that has had a cancer that has been grounded in some environmental (factor) or some kind of chemical,” said McLemore.

The result is communities of color are put at risk over the pressure to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards.

These clients of hair stylist and salon owner Jackie Page Christian know it all too well.

“I think it was just like we were also in a time when society kind of dictated that good hair was straight," client Jamila Conley recalled. "And bad hair was nappy. And so it wasn't even a conscious thought of 'Should I be doing this?' as much as it was, 'This is what I'm supposed to do to be a beautiful Black woman.'"

“It had to be done no matter what, so there is this pressure to always feel presentable to always look put together,” said Leslie Christian.

Natural hair: “Less professional, less competent”

The pressure to look put together was often also fueled by discrimination in the workplace. 

In 2020 researchers at Duke University found Black women with natural hairstyles are perceived to be less professional, and less competent than women with straight hair or white women with curly hair.

“That's grounded in patriarchy and misogyny, right, this idea that you know, there's some perfect way to be in the world,” said McLemore.

Cosmetic testing leads to new law

Finally – in Washington- safety concerns are coming before societal pressure.

New product testing conducted earlier this year in state labs confirmed the presence of cancer-causing chemicals in many cosmetic products marketed and sold to women of color in Washington including lipsticks, foundation, lotions and chemical hair relaxers.

“We detected formaldehyde in 26 out of 30 of those products," said Marissa Smith, a senior regulatory toxicologist with the State of Washington. "We found lead in three out of 20 of the products that we tested. During development, our brains are so sensitive to lead exposure that there is no known safe dose according to the CDC. And so when we find lead in products like lipstick, like powder foundations, products that we know pregnant women use, there's a reason to be concerned.”

Smith explained why these dangerous chemicals end up in beauty products.

“Sometimes it has to do with the function, so skin lightening creams and hair relaxers, they're just serving a function that's more likely to have toxic chemicals,” said Smith.

Salon owner Jackie Christian has her own take on how dangerous chemicals end up in cosmetics marketed and made for Black women.

“A lot of these companies that are manufacturing, these darker shades, they are not Black-owned, so they don't have a dog in the fight," said Jackie Christian. "You know, they're just, they're just making money."

The results of the testing led to a new law in Washington that will restrict the sale of personal care products that contain seven classes of dangerous chemicals including lead. Jackie Christian says it’s a move long delayed.

“[Businesses] don't care about our health, they don't care that we bury our loved ones and bury, and they don't care that young women are having a hysterectomy before they can even have families. They don't care about that. That does not faze them. But losing money does,” said Jackie Christian.

Dangerous beauty

Jackie Christian knows, despite the cancer risks, there are still some minds that won’t be swayed. 

She says she doesn’t use chemical relaxers at her salon, a move which has caused her to lose clients in the past who did not want to stop using chemicals to relax their hair. 

Part of her job now, she says, has become affirming her clients' choice when they decide to “go natural” with their hair.

“I have seen women go through this journey, and release the wig and all the other stuff, and, and wear their natural hair out, and but I remember, day one when it's like ‘I'm so scared to go up to go to work like this,'” said Jackie Christian. “This is just generations of probably her mama and her momma’s mama saying you got to look presentable, you got to look right.”

“It started off with just okay, ‘This is not good for our hair, we can't keep doing this,’ and then I think it later just turned into okay, ‘This is reclaiming our culture’,” said Leslie Christian.

Reclaiming their culture, preserving their health and breaking the cycle for their own children.

“I don't ever want her to have the experience that I did growing up where you where you feel like there is something wrong with your hair, to begin with,” said Leslie Christian about her own young daughter. “It's a beautiful thing to see them kind of growing up and growing up in a world where they don't even have to second guess if their hair is presentable or not.”

Washington’s "Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act" will ban PFAS, also known as "forever chemicals," formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing agents by 2025. It will also provide incentives for small businesses to make safer cosmetics.

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