Are Your Beauty Products Safe?


Skin Deep® Adds More Than 1,000 Products Marketed to Black Women

A smaller share of hair and beauty products marketed to Black women scored low in potentially harmful ingredients than products aimed at the general public, an EWG analysis of more than 1,000 products found. Because Black women appear to buy and use more personal care products, the limited options could mean they are being exposed to more potentially hazardous chemicals.  

Black people make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, but by one estimate, African-Americans’ spending accounts for as much as 22 percent of the $42 billion-a-year personal care products market, suggesting that they buy and use more of such products – including those with potentially harmful ingredients – than Americans as a whole.[1][2][3]

In an analysis of ingredients in 1,177 beauty and personal care products marketed to Black women, about one in 12 was ranked highly hazardous on the scoring system of EWG's Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database, a free online resource for finding less-hazardous alternatives to personal care products. Skin Deep® compares product ingredients to more than 60 toxicity and regulatory databases and scientific studies, and rates the products from 1 (lowest hazard) to 10 (highest hazard). With the addition of the products analyzed for this report, Skin Deep® now rates more than 64,000 products.

The analysis also found:

  • Fewer than one-fourth of the products marketed to Black women scored low in potentially hazardous ingredients, compared to about 40 percent of the items in Skin Deep® marketed to the general public. The percentage of products scored as "high hazard" was about the same for both market segments, but the disparity in products scored as "low hazard" suggests that there may be a narrower range of choices for safer-scoring products specifically marketed to Black women.

  • Potential hazards linked to product ingredients include cancer, hormone disruption, developmental and reproductive damage, allergies and other adverse health effects.

  • The worst-scoring products marketed to Black women were hair relaxers, and hair colors and bleaching products. Each of these categories had an average product score indicating high potential hazard.

  • In the categories of hair relaxers, hair colors and bleaching products, lipsticks, and concealers, foundations and sun-protective makeup, none of the products analyzed were scored as "low hazard."

Scientific research is scarce

Not enough is known about the health hazards of cosmetics and other personal care products marketed to Black women. Advocacy organizations such as Black Women for Wellness, West Harlem Environmental Action and Women’s Voices for the Earth have reported on the issue and published guides for minimizing exposure to potentially hazardous ingredients, but the body of scientific research is woefully sparse. Still, the available studies raise serious concerns.

Research has mostly focused on chemical hair straighteners for Black women and girls. The two most common methods of chemical hair straightening involve products called relaxers and texturizers, which contain harsh ingredients like lye that break down the chemical bonds in hair, allowing it to be styled. Scientists have found that use of chemical hair straighteners has been linked to certain forms of baldness,[4] increased risk of the formation of uterine leiomyomata – noncancerous growths in the uterus[5] – and among pregnant women, premature birth, low infant birth weight and other pregnancy- and birth-related problems.[6]

In recent years, the use of these harsh products has declined as Black women seem to favor more natural hair styles. The market analysis firm Mintel estimates that sales of hair relaxers marketed to Black women dropped by close to 40 percent between 2008 and 2015.[7][8] Conversely, sales of shampoos, conditioners and styling products marketed for use on “natural hair” are increasing. Between 2013 and 2015 alone, sales of “natural” hair styling products increased by about 27 percent, now comprising 35 percent of the Black hair care market.[9]

Although "natural" hair products presumably have fewer toxic ingredients than traditional hair straighteners, many of these products still contain potentially harmful ingredients. Laboratory tests on some products commonly used by Black women, including hair and skin lotions, conditioners and creams, showed estrogenic or anti-estrogenic activity,[10] meaning that they mimicked the effects of the hormone estrogen. Other studies have found that Black Americans had higher urinary concentrations of parabens, the hormone-disrupting chemicals commonly used as preservatives in personal care products, pharmaceuticals and foods.[11]