ATLANTA–Perched in a stylist’s chair at Yaya’s Natural Hair Boutique, Akeyla Peele-Tembong teared up as she recalled how, when she was a college student, one of her professors suggested that she straighten her natural hair to improve her chances of landing a plum work-study job.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to.’ She was just, like, ‘I mean, just think about it.’ And that was it,” Peele-Tembong said, while her stylist twisted her natural hair into locs. “I didn’t realize how big of a deal that conversation was at that time.”
Societal pressure to conform is a factor in why Black women are twice as likely as those from other groups to use hair relaxers, and Asian women are three times as likely to use skin lighteners, according to a new study that also linked chemicals in such products to adverse health effects.
Researchers sought to measure the internalization of racialized beauty standards and said the resulting extensive use of such products by women of color, represents what they called the “environmental injustice of beauty.”
The study, published in the journal Environmental Justice, noted that the prevalence of such products represents “a growing public health concern.”
“Elevated levels of beauty-product related chemicals, such as phthalates and parabens, among women of color, can be linked to entrenched social and economic systems, such as colonialism and slavery, that have codified a hier-archy of beauty norms,” the researchers wrote. “These beauty norms create material advantages to people with physical traits associated with white femininity, such as light skin and straight hair.”
Lariah Edwards, an associate research scientist in the Department of Environmental Health Science at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and lead author of the study, said women of color—who already experience wide health disparities compared to their white counterparts—must also contend with “the overburdening exposure of chemicals in consumer products.”
Phthalates are chemicals often called plasticizers that are used in such products as vinyl flooring, lubricating oil and beauty products, according to the Centers for Disease Control. They have affected the reproductive system in animals, the agency reported, but the human health effects from low-level exposure “are not as clear.” Parabens are chemicals used as preservatives in cosmetics, the CDC said, adding that “human health effects from environmental exposure to low levels of parabens are unknown.”
“Women of color because of social structural factors, the big ‘isms’ like racism, sexism, classism, they feel compelled to use these products to fit into a certain way of life and look a certain way to achieve certain benefits or that next job or things like that,” said Edwards. “And because of that, they’re using these products that have a lot of chemicals in them.”
For Peele-Tembong, now a 32-year-old education technology specialist, that talk with her professor had a lasting impact. Then there was another conversation with a hiring manager when she sought feedback after an interview for a different job.
“I was told they’re just looking for a certain type, like, they wanted a certain look,” said Peele-Tembong, who is Black. Later, after learning that white students were hired, but she was not, she felt compelled to set aside her concerns about chemicals in hair relaxers, and have her natural coils straightened.
“So I, like, cried, and went on my way to this appointment,” Peele-Tembong said. “It was bad. I felt defeated.”
The study led by Edwards took particular note of the use of skin lighteners as a response to colorism, prejudice or discrimination against people with darker complexions. Skin lighteners can contain corticosteroids, which can lead to metabolic problems, and mercury, which has been linked to kidney and nerve system damage.
In addition, researchers said, biases against natural hair styles is how “another form of environmental injustice in beauty, plays out through overt policy and practice.”
“In particular, Black women have been pressured to straighten their naturally curly or kinky hair for reasons such as being seen as professional in the workplace, social acceptance, or other norms that have excluded Black bodies,” the authors wrote.
They noted that chemical straighteners, such as relaxers, can contain harmful chemicals such as phthalates, parabens, and formaldehyde, and that their use has been associated with increased risk of uterine fibroids, early puberty and breast cancer.
As Peele-Tembong spoke about her collegiate hair experience, her stylist, Yakini Horn, rolled sections of Peele-Tembong’s hair in her hands, as if she were praying, to create “starter locs,” the early stage of a natural style that will take months to root. Peele-Tembong recalled how angry her friends at Georgia Southern University became at the time, when they realized she had permed her hair in hopes of getting hired for a job.
Then, Peele-Tembong said, the relaxer that she resorted to caused her hair to break off. Horn chimed in with a similar experience: She permed her hair for high school graduation, and it all came out in the sink.
“So sad,” Peele-Tembong said. With a wry laugh, she suggested that they have “a moment of silence” for their lost hair.
A National Institutes of Health study last year found that the use of hair straightening products was also associated with a higher risk of uterine cancer, and that Black women were more likely to be affected because of their higher rates of using hair relaxers. Jenny Mitchell, a woman who was diagnosed with uterine cancer at 28, with no family history of the disease, filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer of chemical straightening products last October.
The recent findings of Edwards and her co-researchers were based on a survey of 297 women and femme-identifying individuals in New York City. Half of all the people who responded to the survey said they think that others find straight hair and light skin more beautiful.
The study, which published on Jan. 18, found that Black people who took the survey were most likely to use chemical straighteners—60 percent of non-Hispanic Black women and “femme-identifying” individuals reported ever using chemical straighteners and 48 percent of Black women and femme-identifying individuals of Hispanic descent. Edwards said that current use of straighteners was down for all—the study found that 15 percent and 13 percent for female and femme-identifying respondents currently use hair straighteners.
“I thought it was wonderful to see that our data suggests that fewer women are now currently using chemical straighteners, particularly Black women,” said Edwards. “We saw that a lot of Black women said they have used it in their lifetime, but fewer said they’ve used it in the past year. I think that is a great indication that Black women are continuing to embrace their natural hair textures.”
With skin lightening products, the study found that Asian respondents reported the highest frequency of use, with 57 percent reporting they had ever used it and are currently using it. Skin lightener use among Asian and Hispanic respondents was higher for respondents born in other countries versus those born in the United States.
Ami Zota, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and the study’s co-senior author, said she coined the phrase “environmental injustice of beauty” because she believes that framing is critical to the conversation about chemical exposures and health impacts “viewed through a structural racism lens.”
“There are many social, cultural, historical factors that drive our beliefs about beauty and that what society deems is beautiful is essential to influencing how people choose to present themselves,” said Zota, who is an associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia. “And that often women of color are kind of inherently outside of preferred beauty norms, which are rooted in Eurocentric white femininity. And so, kind of as an adoptive response, some women of color end up using more toxic products to kind of conform to Eurocentric beauty norms.”
Zota said when it comes to the beauty industry, there are not only health issues at stake here, but climate issues too. She said many products rely on petrochemicals produced from fossil fuels and increase plastic consumption.
“It’s just another way where environmental justice and climate intersect,” she said.
Sophia Huda, a toxic specialist for WE ACT for Environmental Justice, an environmental group that was a part of the study, said the impact to communities of color is almost like a double whammy.
Huda said Black and Latinx women are some of the biggest consumers of personal care products and that because of this their exposure levels are “a lot higher than other ethnic groups.” They tend to live in environmental justice communities and are exposed to other toxic chemicals and pollution in the places they live, she said. And she added that they are even exposed inside their homes: More affordable cleaning products and furniture are more likely to have toxic chemicals and reduce indoor air quality.
All of that cumulative exposure, Huda said, raises the stakes for women of color.
“Here we have people who feel the need to use these products because of the standards of beauty that have been imposed on them because they feel discriminated against and that they can’t get a job or advance in their careers just because of things they can’t control, like the texture of their hair and the color of their skin,” Huda said. “And on top of that, living in communities where they’re exposed to way more pollution and toxic chemicals. And so then it becomes very much an environmental justice issue.”
Huda said people of color are also impacted by the minimal regulation of beauty and personal care products. “This is a huge problem in the U.S. that these products are not properly regulated,” she said.
Sonya Schuh, a biology professor who studies toxins in personal care products at Saint Mary’s College of California, said the European Union bans more than 1,100 chemicals in personal care products. In the United States, 11 chemicals are banned.
“When you talk about climate change and you talk about the planet and the oceans and the devastating effects that plastics and microplastics are having, people are concerned and go, ‘Oh, that’s so terrible,’ but they kind of feel helpless,” said Schuh.
“But as soon as I start to say, ‘Well, guess what? Those plastic chemicals and things that you’re exposed to in all your plastics and all your products, this is what they are doing to your health and your potential fertility or your potential unborn baby,’” she said. “As soon as I frame it in that way, then people are much more concerned.”
Peele-Tembong said she feels encouraged by what, in recent years, appears to be more education around the potential harms of beauty products, and by proposed legislation like the Crown Act, which would prevent discrimination based on a particular hair style.
If faced today with the same hair pressure that she encountered in college, Peele-Tembong said, she would resist changing her hair style in order to conform, “just because I know it’s ignorance.”
“No one can kind of tell me that anymore,” she said.
This article has been updated after an earlier version misstated the name of the journal in which the research was published. The journal’s name is “Environmental Justice,” not “Environmental Health.”