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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]

EWG’s investigation

In 2014 and 2015, EWG scoured online and brick-and-mortar retailers, and specialty stores to catalogue ingredient details for products marketed to Black women. Recent studies have highlighted the hazardous chemicals to which Black hair salon workers are routinely exposed,[12][13] but we did not review salon or professional products, except for those also sold in retail stores.

Over 50 percent of the products were for hair care, including conditioners, shampoos, and styling gels and lotions. About one-fifth of the hair care products we evaluated were specifically marketed to women with curly hair, because according to our research such products are frequently used by Black women. The other half of products included moisturizers, makeups, cleansers and several other categories. All together, we collected products from over 50 product categories, with some falling in more than one category.

Using the Skin Deep® database, we evaluated the potential toxicity of each product:

  • Fewer than one-fourth of the products scored 1 or 2 – green for low potential hazard.

  • Seventy percent scored from 3 to 6 – yellow for moderate potential hazard.

  • Eight percent scored from 7 to 10 ­– red for high potential hazard.

Among the best-scoring product categories were bar soaps, body oils, moisturizers, and body washes and cleansers. These categories had the most green-scoring products, fewest red-scoring products and lowest average scores. The worst-scoring product categories were hair relaxers, with an average score of 8.1, and hair color and bleaching products, with an average score of 7.9.

Product categories of concern

Hair relaxers and dyes

The 15 hair relaxers evaluated scored an average of 8.1 in Skin Deep®, solidly in the scoring range of products to be avoided. Thirteen of these products claimed to be “no-lye” treatments, supposedly safer for use because they exclude the caustic ingredient sodium hydroxide. But the analysis showed that these treatments still score highly for potential harm since they contain other hazardous ingredients such as parabens and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, as discussed below. In fact, even calcium hydroxide, the chemical that replaces lye in the “no-lye” relaxers, is a caustic irritant.

We also evaluated 12 hair dyes marketed to Black women. This category was the only one for which every product analyzed scored poorly, placing these products in the high hazard range. Three ingredients of particular concern were found in all hair dyes analyzed: undisclosed “fragrance” mixtures; resorcinol, a hormone disruptor and sensitizing chemical that can trigger allergic reactions; and p-phenylenediamine, a sensitizing chemical for which there is also limited evidence of carcinogenicity.[14][15]

Concealers and foundations

None of the concealers and foundations we reviewed scored in the low hazard range, and the average score of these two product categories were in the moderate hazard range. According to our analysis, most of these products contain hormone-disrupting parabens and retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that has been linked to skin cancer when exposed to sunlight.

Potentially harmful ingredients

Many of the products evaluated contain hormone-disrupting chemicals such as parabens, ingredients linked to skin cancer such as retinyl palmitate, and ingredients that increase the risk of skin allergies such as formaldehyde-releasing preservatives.

STAND UP FOR #BEAUTYMADEBETTER!Are you ready to take the next step? Add your name to stand with EWG for safer ingredients!

(Originally Published Content from

Written By Tashell Williams



1 Thandisizwe Chimurenga, How Toxic is Black Hair Care? New America Media, Feb. 2, 2012. Available at 2 First Research, Personal Care Products Manufacturing Industry Profile. Accessed August 2016. Available at 3 This report uses "Black" to describe not only people who identify as African-American, but Black people in the U.S. who come from the Caribbean or other areas. "African-American" is used only when a cited source specifies that term. 4 Judy H. Borovicka et al., Scarring Alopecia: Clinical and Pathologic Study of 54 African-American Women. International Journal of Dermatology, August 2009. Available at 5 Lauren A. Wise et al., Hair Relaxer Use and Risk of Uterine Leiomyomata in African-American Women. American Journal of Epidemiology, March 2012. Available at 6 Cheryl Blackmore-Prince et al., Chemical Hair Treatments and Adverse Pregnancy Outcome Among Black Women in Central North Carolina. American Journal of Epidemiology, April 1999. Available at 7 Mintel, Black Haircare – US – August 2013. Available at See also: Mintel, Hair Relaxers Sales Decline 26% Over the Past Five Years. Sept. 5, 2013. Available at 8 Mintel, Black Consumers and Haircare – US – August 2015. Available at See also: Mintel, Natural Hair Movement Drives Sales of Styling Products in US Black Haircare Market. Dec. 17, 2015. Available at 9 Ibid. 10 Sharon L. Myers et al., Estrogenic and Anti-Estrogenic Activity of Off-the-Shelf Hair and Skin Care Products. Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, May 2015. Available at 11 Kristen W. Smith et al., Predictors and Variability of Urinary Paraben Concentrations in Men and Women, Including Before and During Pregnancy. Environmental Health Perspectives, November 2012. Available at 12 Laura J Goldin et al., Assessing Occupational Exposure in Black Hair Salons. Brandeis University, July 25, 2016. Available at 13 Black Women for Wellness, Natural Evolutions: One Hair Story. January 2016. Available at 14 European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Products, Opinion on p-Phenylenediamine. European Commission Health & Consumer Protection Directorate-General, October 2006. Available at 15 International Agency for Research on Cancer, IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of the Carcinogenic Risks to Humans, Supplement 7. World Health Organization, March 1987. Available at 16 Kristen W. Smith et al., Urinary Paraben Concentrations and Ovarian Aging Among Women from a Fertility Center. Environmental Health Perspectives, November to December 2013. Available at 17 Erika S. Koeppe et al., Relationship Between Urinary Triclosan and Paraben Concentrations and Serum Thyroid Measures in NHANES 2007-2008. The Science of the Total Environment, Feb. 15, 2013. Available at 18 Yukiko Nishihama et al., Association Between Paraben Exposure and Menstrual Cycle in Female University Students in Japan. Reproductive Toxicology, August 2016. Available at 19 Laura A. Geer et al., Association of Birth Outcomes with Fetal Exposure to Parabens, Triclosan and Triclocarban in an Immigrant Population in Brooklyn, New York. Journal of Hazardous Materials, March 11, 2016. Available at 20 EWG, Guide to Sunscreens: The Problem with Vitamin A. Revised May 2016, accessed August 2016. Available at 21 EWG, Exposing the Cosmetics Cover-Up: Is Cancer-Causing Formaldehyde in Your Cosmetics? October 10, 2013, accessed August 2016. Available at 22 Maria A. Scherrer et al., Contact Dermatitis to Methylisothiazolinone. Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia, November to December 2015. Available at 23 European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety, Opinion on Methylisothiazolinone (MI) (P94) Submission III (Sensitisation Only). European Commission, Dec. 15, 2015. Available at 24 Health Canada, Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist: Prohibited and Restricted Ingredients. Accessed August 2016. Available at 25 Japan Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, Standards for Cosmetics (Provisional Translation). Available at

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