Prove your humanity

There are more than 12,500 unique chemical ingredients found in personal care products sold in the United States. Some can disrupt the endocrine system, are dangerous to the reproductive system, or are known or suspected carcinogens. The consumer advocacy organization, Environmental Working Group, has been trying to help consumers who want to know what’s in the products they use with a searchable database called Skin Deep.

The Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant spoke with Nneka Lieba, director of the EWG program that created the database, about what they found when they focused on products specifically marketed to African American women.

Julie Grant: How do you define something that’s specifically targeted to black women?

Nneka Lieba: It’s usually in the advertising and the marketing of the product. Often it’s curly or kinky hair, and they say that in the marketing. There are products that are marketed to Asian women, Latino women and other women of color, too. At some point, we hope to assess those as well.

JG: What did you find when you assessed products targeted specifically to black women? 

NL: What we found was that black women have fewer options for healthier products if they’re buying products specifically marketed to their demographic. And we found that if black women wanted to choose a product that ranked “green,” meaning the lowest toxicity, they had less than a 25 percent chance of finding a low scoring product. Whereas in the general market, 40 percent of the products score in the “green” range.

LISTEN: “How Toxic are Your Beauty Products?”

JG: What did you think about that?

NL: It was disheartening.

But many years ago when we started working on the Skin Deep data base, we didn’t see that many green products in general for the general market. And as EWG and other groups brought awareness to the fact that there were ingredients of concern and personal care products, we started to see more green products emerge into the market. And so hopefully by shining a light on what’s available to specific demographics, companies will step up to the plate and offer more green-rated products.

JG: What do you think has happened? The creation of your database in particular? And, in general, the move toward natural foods and more people wanting to understand what’s in their food, and now maybe that’s moved to cosmetic products? 

“Black women have fewer options for healthier products if they’re buying products specifically marketed to their demographic.”

NL: Absolutely. I think that in 2004 nobody was thinking that when you put personal care products on your body, you’re putting chemicals on your body. They were just thinking that you were putting on a lotion or brushing your teeth. Same thing with cleaning products and with food.

One of the other misconceptions that we heard a lot back then was that if it’s on store shelves, that means the government has tested it and it’s safe. That’s absolutely not true, which is why we develop Skin Deep to show that there are many products on the market that are perfectly legal yet include ingredients of concern. And since then, we’ve definitely seen a lot of awareness.

People are making more educated decisions based on the ingredients in their products rather than just the claims on the products or the brand name on the product. And it started with food. Organic food 25 years ago–we think that’s where the cosmetics space is now. 

SEARCH The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Data Base to Find Out if Your Products are Safe

JG: What kind of ingredients are we talking about, and what are the health effects that you’re concerned about?

NL: We focus a lot on hair products because that’s where you’ll find the majority of products marketed specifically to black women. And what we were seeing was that the worst category of products were here dyes and here straighteners. It isn’t surprising because I think most people know that hair straighteners can be quite toxic. And hair dyes, not just marketed to black women, but hair dyes across the board, have ingredients like coal tar dyes that have been linked to cancer. It also can trigger allergic reactions.

In terms of other products, ingredients that we see ubiquitously in the market like parabens, which are found in a number of products, they are preservatives. So water-based products like shampoos and conditioners may contain parabens, which have been linked to endocrine disruption which means that they can affect the normal function in the hormone system.

Now that may sound pretty benign if somebody doesn’t fully understand that our entire growth and reproduction system is dependent on hormones. Everything we do is pretty much dependent on a proper functioning hormone system. So when you are affecting the hormone system, you can potentially have long-term health impacts.

Source: Environmental Working Group

JG: Some of the girls that we talked with were using chemical relaxers to straighten their hair as young as eight years ol

NL: And while we can’t definitively say that the exposure to any one ingredient is linked to health impacts, we do know that young black girls are going through puberty at a much younger age than any other demographic. And that’s a much younger age than they were going through puberty 10 and 20 years ago.

The medical fraternity has speculated that that’s in part due to the endocrine disruptors that they were exposed to at a young age.

JG: What’s the evidence connecting that back to the hair products they are using?

NL: What we can definitively say is that when these ingredients are tested in lab animals, they are showing some of the health effects that we’re talking about –endocrine disruption, infertility, cancer.

We can’t definitively say that this one chemical caused this effect when a human used it because no human uses one chemical at a time. We are exposed to thousands of chemicals at any one moment. But we are seeing the same health effects in the human population. And what we’re also seeing is that when we test the blood, urine, hair and breast milk of our population we are finding these chemicals. So we know that they’re getting into our bodies.