This story is the first installment of a three-part Exploring Your Health episode delving into the potentially harmful chemicals found in many popular beauty products, and the health risks associated with them. All three parts are available now:

If you check out earlier episodes of Exploring Your Health, you’ll notice my hair style has changed a bit. It was actually a big decision to transition from straight hair to a curly afro. This first installment of three, on Harmful Beauty, dives into the pressures women face, particularly women of color, to conform to unrealistic beauty standards, and how that struggle to fit in may be impacting our health.

Five years ago, Shawné Reddic, a hair stylist and owner of SBS Hair Studio in Los Angeles’ Leimert Park neighborhood, stopped using chemical hair straighteners on long hair. It was an effort to reduce her and her clients’ exposure to harmful chemicals.

From coast to coast, there’s a shift happening among women of color, an acknowledgement that the cost of beauty is just too high.

When asked why she believes so many women have risked exposures or burns from heated tools to straighten their hair, Reddic said, “because we weren't valued and looked at, [sic] our own curl pattern or our ethnicity, as being beautiful.” 

It's something that hit close to home for Environmental Reproductive Epidemiologist Tamarra James-Todd.

“So my daughter, when she was about three, just would not leave the house. She has a big, beautiful, natural, you know, fro, that, you know, I love and want her to embrace. She called her hair ‘out hair,’ ‘I don't want out hair anymore, I want my hair to be down like the rest of my classmates,’ and trying to convince her wasn't going to work. So I had to finally stop wearing my hair, for a bit, like this,” said James-Todd, pointing to her neat, pulled-back hair, “And wear it out. But even then, it requires so much maintenance, so many, so many products and so on. But for me, it definitely gives my work more weight.”

James-Todd is now a researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She began studying the products Black women use in their hair nearly a decade ago. It was part of her doctoral thesis at Columbia University.

“One of the things when I first started doing this work was focus on hair perms. But it's beyond perms. Right?” said James-Todd, “We use all sorts of other products to make our hair lay or appear a certain way to be able to get that job. Be accepted within our professional communities or just society as a whole.”

It is a struggle most people can identify with in some way, no matter your background. Bhavna Shamasunder is a community researcher and associate professor in the department of Urban Environmental Policy at Occidental College.

“I think these pressures are so intense that they're part of family life. Right? So if a baby is born in a family and they tend to be fair or less fair, you see grandmothers comment, ‘oh, your baby is so fair or oh, your baby is very dark,’” said Shamasunder. “I've heard this in my own life for my children. And I think that just those messages, inside families, have to change. But I think they exist because there is a feedback to the benefits that accrue to those who possess straighter hair or lighter skin. Right? So in the Indian community, it is light skin. Sixty percent of all [beauty] products in India that are sold are some sort of skin lightening.”

Shamasunder’s work centers around how the environment impacts racial disparities in health.

“There's environmental justice, and this includes things like racism, poverty, the social stress of dealing with racism and poverty. And this, combined with environmental hazards, can lead to worsened health. And this is everything from asthma, heart, respiratory illness, heart disease.” 

From opposite coasts, the work of these two researchers is intersecting, connecting the dots, between the pressures to live up to an unrealistic, outdated standard of beauty and poor health outcomes.

The statistics are well documented; Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause and black babies are twice as likely to be born with low birth weights. Among the general population, 20 percent of women experience fibroids, but it’s a condition up to 80 percent of Black women are diagnosed with. In Kentucky, the breast cancer death rate was 19 percent higher in black women than in white women between 2013 and 2017. 

James-Todd says persistent health disparities experienced by women of color are likely connected to the products we use. “I think it's been an underexplored piece of the puzzle. Oftentimes when we think about disparities, we focus on health services. So we think about discrimination from the perspective of what's happening between the physician and the patient. And we don't give much thought about what are the exposures that may be culturally driven.”

James-Todd collected and catalogued the listed chemicals in popular beauty products used by Black women.

“In a lot of people you're using these [products] over the course of many years and you use them, you know, if not every day, two, three, four times a week.”

Some of her work has found links between exposures to chemicals in beauty products and pregnancy complications and infertility.

Researchers at Silent Spring Institute, also in Boston, are exploring the link as well.

“They were able to about a year or so ago, test the ingredients of those of those commonly used products. And in that study, it came out that there were many, many unfortunate endocrine disruptors and other chemicals that were in these products,” said James-Todd. 

More about the misleading labels on those products and what endocrine disrupting chemicals can do to the body in part two