The environmental injustice of personal care products

Recent research suggests that the use of personal care products, such as cosmetics, may be one of the causes of racial and ethnic disparities in exposure to environmental contaminants, such as lead, formaldehyde, and parabens. A recent article in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology titled “The environmental injustice of beauty: framing chemical exposures to beauty products as a health disparities concern” by┬áDr. Ami Zota and Dr. Bhavna Shamasunder outlines these disparities (link to the full open access article here).

In the article, the researchers highlight the use of skin, hair, and feminine hygiene products as some of the main sources of exposure. Personal care products frequently do not have adequate safety testing data; the FDA does not approve the safety of cosmetics, only the coloring used in cosmetics. The FDA regulates cosmetics under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C) and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA), but neither of these Acts regulate the safety of cosmetic ingredients (with the exception of color additives). Additionally, unlike medical devices and drugs, cosmetics do not require FDA approval before they are marketed and sold to the public (more information about cosmetics and the FDA here). Therefore, there are many safety and health testing gaps for the ingredients used in personal products.

Additionally, the products that are marketed to specific racial or ethnic groups may have a higher burden of harmful chemicals or pollutants; for example, high levels of formaldehyde are found in hair-straightening products, such as those marketed to African American women. As outlined in the article, hair relaxant products may also contain placental extracts, which contain hormones that could have negative consequences for health. These differences in product use and the targeting of specific populations by personal product manufacturers could drive disparities in health outcomes. The authors state that more research needs to be conducted on this topic, as well as how these personal product exposures may interact with other exposures, such as stress and other sources of pollution.

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