Use of Beauty Products Among African American Women: Potential Health Disparities and Clinical Implications

July 2020 | Volume 19 | Issue 7 | Features | 772 | Copyright © July 2020

Published online June 24, 2020

Amaris N. Geisler BS,a Julie K. Nguyen MD,b,c and Jared Jagdeo MD MSb,c

aCUNY School of Medicine, New York, NY bDepartment of Dermatology, SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, Brooklyn, NY cDermatology Service, VA New York Harbor Healthcare System, Brooklyn, NY

Skin and hair care products may be a potential source of toxic chemical exposure that disproportionately affects skin of color patients. African American women may have increased exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, as they are more likely to use personal care products such as chemical straighteners and relaxers. While studies on the association between beauty product use and certain diseases have shown variable findings, recent research has highlighted the potential increased risk of breast cancer among women who use certain hair products. The potential toxicity of beauty product-related chemicals has led women’s health providers to issue a call to action to identify and reduce patient exposure to these agents. We call for further research to better characterize the potential systemic effects of beauty products, especially those targeted toward skin of color individuals.

J Drugs Dermatol. 2020;19(7): doi:10.36849/JDD.2020.4889


Skin and hair care products may be a potential source of toxic chemical exposure that disproportionately affects skin of color patients.1 Recently, much debate has focused on the “clean beauty” movement, which promotes the use of so-called natural or organic ingredients, and avoidance of suspected or proven toxic compounds.2 Concurrently, there has been a shift towards embracing more natural hair styles in the African American (AA) community. Sales of hair relaxers marketed to black women decreased by 40% between 2008 and 2015.3 Conversely, the sales of shampoo, conditioner, and styling products marketed for natural hair are increasing. Between 2013 and 2015 alone, sales of natural hair styling products increased by 27%, now compromising 35% of the AA hair care market.3 Although this is believed to be a positive shift in the AA beauty market, this brief communication highlights that there is a paucity of research on potential toxicities of beauty products, and how increased exposure among AA may contribute to health-related disparities.

African Americans comprise 13% of the U.S. population yet they yield significant spending power, accounting for 22% of the $42 billion personal care products market annually.1 AA women aged 18–34 are considered “heavy buyers,” purchasing more than ten types of beauty products per year.1 Research has demonstrated that AA women have higher levels of parabens and phthalates, common preservatives found in beauty products, in their bodies compared to Caucasian women.3 Additionally, AA children have been found to have five times the urinary paraben level compared to their Caucasian counterparts.3 The use of endocrine-disrupting chemical containing beauty products such as chemical relaxers in AA girls begins as early as age 4-8, and has been proposed as a risk factor for premature sexual development.1 Despite these correlations, definitive conclusions cannot be made about the systemic absorption and effects of topical beauty product use.

Increased chemical exposure from ethnic skin and hair care products may be driven partially by targeted marketing, which has created vulnerable consumerism among the historically underserved AA population.1 Targeted marketing exploits European beauty norms to influence AA consumers.1 This type of targeted racial marketing is reminiscent of the marketing of methanol cigarettes that occurred in low-income inner city AA neighborhoods, which created a racialized geography of tobacco-related health disparities.1 The influence of marketing on the sales of hair straighteners and skin lighteners has been evaluated.1 In a study that analyzed the marketing of skin lighteners in Harlem, researchers concluded that advertisers associated lighter skin tone with greater educational attainment and employment earnings.1 This societal pressure also exists in the workplace, as AA women are twice as likely as Caucasian women to experience work-related pressure to straighten their