If you’ve rolled your eyes at “phthalate-free” marketing, citing the dose make the poison under your breath, this article is for you. Melanie Curry recently wrote an article in Prevention titled “Black Women Say Products for Black Hair Are Dangerously Toxic—Why Are We Still Not Listening?” which I encourage everyone to read. She hits on many themes that are worth unpacking and I want to specifically address the social media trend to hate on clean, and what that means for efforts to advance environmental justice.
While I am the first to raise a hand when inaccurate and fear mongering marketing takes place in the “clean” sector, dismissing it entirely has deep implications for environmental justice (the field of science that understands the intersections between race and environmental pollution).
The science behind chemicals and their health impacts is complex to say the least. As some companies and individuals knowingly or unknowingly overstate the science, there has been a strong anti-clean backlash on social media, mostly fueled by dermatologists and cosmetic chemists (don’t be fooled by the title, most of the vocal chemists have no educational background in environmental health). Hating on “clean” is no different than how everyone hated on “natural” ten years ago. It’s a new marketing term that is signaling to consumers a product was made without the use of toxic chemicals (yes, it would help to have a federal definition, more on that here).
By dismissing the need for a clean category all together, you’re first dismissing legit, albeit nuanced science. Second, communities that are hardest hit by chemical pollution in products are communities of color and low income communities. If we dismiss toxic chemical exposures in consumer products, we will kill the growing wave of momentum to pass federal laws that help remove these toxic chemicals from our products and communities. And if that fails to happen, overexposed communities will continue to be left hanging in the balance.
Let’s see what the science says.
Hair products targeted (primarily) to Black women contain some of the most toxic chemicals
Various studies, including 2022 NIH research, shows that hair products marketed to Black women often contain toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, phthalates, and fragrance chemicals that can have negative health effects like uterine cancer. These chemicals have been linked to health issues such as asthma, reproductive problems like uterine fibroids, breast cancer, and early puberty. A 25 year long study showed that the frequent use of lye-based hair relaxers was linked to an increase in breast cancer for Black women. A 2023 study from Columbia shows that women of color tend to use more hair products due to European beauty standards and workplace expectations and are therefore more exposed to these toxic chemicals.
Increased exposure through skin lightening products, douching/feminine hygiene & highly pigmented color cosmetics
A 2020 study from the peer-reviewed Journal on Health Pollution shows the associated mercury exposure risk from skin lightening creams, which often contain toxic chemicals such as hydroquinone, mercury, corticosteroids, and glutathione. Hydroquinone is the most commonly used ingredient and is a skin bleaching agent that can cause skin irritation, hypersensitivity, and even ochronosis (a condition where the skin becomes dark and thick). Mercury is also commonly used and can cause damage to the kidneys, nervous system, and skin. Corticosteroids, when used long-term, can cause skin thinning and easy bruising. Glutathione is a naturally occurring antioxidant in the body but when used in high doses can cause serious health issues such as thyroid dysfunction and liver damage. The use of skin lightening creams is not recommended due to the potential harm to the skin and overall health and yet the market continues to grow and thrive.
Research by Dr. Ami Zota found that douching has been found to be more common among Black women than women of other racial or ethnic groups. However, many of the solutions used for douching contain toxic chemicals that can have negative health effects, particularly on Black women. Some of the chemicals found in douching solutions include fragrances, which can cause allergic reactions and irritation, as well as ingredients such as quaternium-15, which can disrupt hormone function and have been linked to reproductive problems and cancer.
In addition, deeper skin tones require more pigment when it comes to color cosmetic application. The deeper the pigment the more likelihood of exposure to heavy metals that are contaminants to pigments used in color cosmetics.
Toxicity isn’t just about when we use a product
The lifecycle of toxic chemicals refers to the various stages of production, use, and disposal of chemicals and how they impact the environment and human health. It is important to consider the lifecycle of toxic chemicals when assessing the extent of pollution because the chemicals can have negative impacts at each stage of their lifecycle. For example, during production, toxic chemicals can be released into the air, water, and soil, contaminating the environment and potentially exposing workers to harmful substances. During use, these chemicals can be released into the our homes, household dust and leaching. And when these chemicals are disposed of, they can contaminate landfills, groundwater, and surface water, leading to long-term pollution. Environmental justice is the pursuit of fair and equitable distribution of environmental burdens and benefits among all communities, regardless of race, ethnicity, income, or socio-economic status. It recognizes that some communities, particularly those that are marginalized or disadvantaged, are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards such as pollution, toxic waste sites, and climate change.
So when someone says that a product isn’t toxic when you use it, they dismiss where the chemical was made (check out more about Louisiana’s Cancer Alley here), when the product is transported (like with the recent Ohio train derailment), and when products are incinerated after they are used (burning of trash is a common practice in the U.S. and most often occurs in low income communities). The combustion of consumer products and their toxic chemicals leads to increased air pollution that has direct health impacts on families across the country.
Toxic chemicals can persist in the environment for years and accumulate in the food chain, causing harm to wildlife and human health. Therefore, understanding the entire lifecycle of toxic chemicals is critical for assessing their environmental impact and implementing effective policies to reduce pollution and protect public health.
Low income communities are hit through dollar store dumping
Dollar stores have been found to carry a higher percentage of products containing potentially harmful chemicals compared to other retailers. This is likely due to their focus on providing low-cost products, which can result in the use of cheaper and potentially more toxic ingredients, and it also happens when larger companies are looking to off load products that no longer have a market at larger retailers. Studies have found that dollar store products such as toys, jewelry, and personal care items often contain chemicals such as lead, phthalates, and bisphenol A (BPA), which can have negative impacts on human health. Additionally, many of these products do not have proper labeling or safety information, which can make it difficult for consumers to make informed decisions about the products they purchase. The environmental justice community has been actively pressuring dollar stores to prohibit certain toxic chemicals from being sold in stores.
The “dose makes the poison” misses the evolution of scientific research
Sometimes the dose makes the poison, and sometimes it doesn’t. The new rallying cry for the clean haters, is actually an outdated scientific adage we all learned based on ancient science. Researchers who have been leading our new understanding of how some toxic chemicals impact health, know this phrase is out of date. Here’s an example: unlike many other toxic substances, endocrine disruptors can have effects on the body at very low doses, sometimes even at levels that are considered safe by regulatory agencies. This is because they can mimic or block the actions of hormones, which can lead to subtle changes in hormone levels that can have significant impacts on health and development. Additionally, endocrine disruptors can have effects that are not linearly related to dose, meaning that effects can occur at low doses that are not proportional to higher doses. This makes it difficult to use the traditional “dose makes the poison” adage when evaluating the risks associated with endocrine disruptors. Instead, it is necessary to consider the potential impacts on the endocrine system, even at low levels of exposure, in order to fully understand the risks and develop appropriate regulations and guidelines to protect public health. For the science nerds out there, here is a summary of some of the science around endocrine disruption (there have been multiple published scientific consensus statements on how this class of chemicals behaves).
There’s no doubt we need companies and individuals to stop fear mongering and shaming people when it comes to the adoption of non-toxic products. We also have to put a stop to the anti-clean chatter that continues to shape the conversation around the need for clean. There is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done to dismantle racists systems, including beauty standards, and we all need to play a role in advocating for the communities that are hardest hit by chemical pollution.