The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics uses the termwomen of color” with the recognition that this includes women from a wide variety of backgrounds (including African American, Black, Latina, Native American, Asian, Asian Pacific Islander) who are impacted by their own unique cultural ideas of beauty, product preferences and beauty rituals. However, one thing remains clear; communities of color are at a greater risk to be disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals in the workplace, their communities and from cosmetics. Products like skin lighteners, hair relaxers, Brazilian blowout treatments, and acrylic nails are often marketed to women of color, and contain some of the most worrisome ingredients in cosmetics.

The $100 billion cosmetics industry should ensure that cosmetic products marketed to women of color are made with safe ingredients.   In the meantime, while it may seem overwhelming to overhaul your entire beauty bag, it is possible to make small changes one product at a time!

Products of Concern

Nail polish, products and treatments

Acrylic nail treatments are of concern for both those administering and receiving the nail treatment. [1] Women of color make up a large percentage of those who work in the nail technician industry, Bureau of Labor statistics show that nail workers are 6.1% black or African American, 56.7% Asian, and 7.8% Hispanic or Latina. Due to their occupation, individuals working in this industry  are exposed to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors in nail polishes, primers, and glues such as formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, hydroquinone, toluene, and ethyl/methyl methacrylate on a daily basis.[2], [3]

Hair relaxers

Hair treatments, including hair relaxers or Brazilian blowouts, expose women to some ugly chemicals. Hair relaxers (both lye and non-lye) are associated with hazards such as chemical scalp burn, scarring, dry skin, baldness, eye irritation, and dry broken hair. Hair relaxers are made with a base of sodium hydroxide, guanidine hydroxide, or ammonium thioglyocolate[4], which are high pH chemicals, and can cause irreversible damage to both hair and scalp. Post-relaxing treatment require a neutralizing shampoos and conditioners to be used, and often contain chemicals like formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, endocrine disruptors, or carcinogens, which are more easily absorbed into the body’s system.

Skin lighteners

Skin lighteners, which may also be marketed as  skin lightening or spot and acne removal creams and lotions, often contain hydroquinone (a known endocrine disruptor), or worse, mercury. Skin lighteners sold in ethnic markets that were imported to the U.S. are of particular concern because they have been found to contain mercury[5], which is associated with a host of health problems including nervous system, reproductive, immune and respiratory toxicity.  Mercury is easily spread on different surfaces, and may adversely impact not only the individual who uses the product, but other family members as well.[6]


Fragrance is often a driving force behind buying choices. Cosmetic and personal care giant Procter & Gamble (P&G ) data shows that 22.5% of black women choose a product based on fragrance[7], and that it is also an important aspect for both Latina and Latino customers[8]. A commonly used ingredient in fragrance is Diethyl Phthalate (DEP), and information gathered by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) shows that black women and Hispanic women have much higher rates of DEP in their urine (almost double!) than white and Asian women[9].  Phthalates have a wide variety of health effects, which you can read about here.


Chemicals of Concern- Coal tar, coumarin, DMDM hydantoin, formaldehyde, fragrance, hydroquinone, monoethanolamine (mea), mercury, mercury salts, phthalates, p-phenylenediamine, toluene

Six Safe Cosmetics Tips for Women of Color

  1. Skip toxic hair products. Go natural!
  2. Bring your own neutralizing shampoo to the salon.
  3. Avoid nail polishes that include any of the toxic trio: dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde, and toluene.
  4. Reduce your use of products with added fragrance
  5. Read labels closely and find safer alternatives using tools like the Think Dirty app and GuideGuide.
  6. For more information and other resources on this topic, check out some of our partner’s sites:



[1] Women’s Voices for the Earth, “Glossed Over” (2007), available at reports/glossed-over/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Davis, G., Bonta, D., & Smith, S. (2000, January 1). A Guide to Chemical Exposures in the Nail Salons. Retrieved March 4, 2015, from

[4] Hair Relaxers and Straighteners. (n.d.). Retrieved February 19, 2015, from

[5] Gordon Vrdoljak, Ph.D. (2014, August 10). Rooting Out Skin Creams that Contain Toxic Mercury. American Chemical Society National Meeting & Exposition. Lecture conducted from American Chemical Society, San Francisco.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Black Consumer Opportunity. (2012, April 1). Retrieved February 24, 2015, from

[8] Jeffries, N. (2012, January 20). GCI Magazine. Retrieved February 13, 2015, from

[9] Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. (2015, February 1). Retrieved February 24, 2015, from