By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

woman applying hair product

African Americans have a long and often love-hate relationship with hair care products, most of which are manufactured by people who don’t look like them or share the same grade of hair. Heavy focus of late is being placed on the need for safe products that are aimed at Black consumers.

The California Black Health Network (CBHN) has partnered with the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP) and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC), to launch their new Non-Toxic Black Beauty Project. The organizations unveiled a list of top non-toxic Black-owned beauty brands, which features U.S. companies led by Black entrepreneurs who are creating safer beauty products, free of the toxic ingredients linked to health concerns disproportionately impacting Black women. Created as a sortable database of products, the Non-Toxic Black Beauty Project was specifically designed to help consumers find clean products from a source they can trust. It represents the first comprehensive effort to generate a list of chemicals of concern in Black beauty products that should be avoided by consumers, cosmetic manufacturers and retailers.

CBHN’s executive director, Rhonda Smith, said the project is an extension of the organization’s efforts to get to the root causes of health disparities, empower the community to be more proactive about their health and wellness, and enable Black women to make more informed decisions for themselves and their families.

Chemical hair straighteners typically contain products associated with higher cancer risk, including formaldehyde, metals, phthalates and parabens, which may be more easily absorbed by the body through scalp burns and abrasions often caused by these straighteners.

“It is critical that we educate the community about the risks associated with the products that we use every day, and that safer options are available,” Smith said.

“It’s imperative Black individuals in particular know about the safety and health risks associated with hair and personal care products in order to avoid toxic chemicals that can contribute to the development of maternal health issues, breast cancer, diabetes, and more,” she continued.

List creators say the 80 small and medium-size businesses that are featured “raise the bar” for ingredient safety and lead the movement to address the injustice of Black beauty by selling products free of CSC’s 241 “do not use” Red List Chemicals of Concern in Cosmetics. CSC vetted the more than 700 products included in the first searchable database for safety and verified them to be free of harmful chemicals linked to health concerns such as cancer, diabetes, early puberty, endometriosis, infertility, maternal health, pregnancy complications and uterine fibroids.

“The toxic burden facing many Black women paired with lack of awareness, access and beyond has gone on for far too long and is attached to far too many adverse health effects,” said Hannah McCall, founder and executive director of Clean Beauty for Black Girls. “This project is a pivotal piece of our pursuit of beauty justice. I’m so proud of how the Black Beauty Project sets a standard for possibility, expectations and consumer demand. Clean Beauty for Black Girls remains committed to moving that needle forward.”

Maimah Karmo, president and CEO of the Tigerlily Foundation, shares that sentiment.

“This is such a landmark initiative and one that is much needed. We know that Black women are negatively impacted by many social determinants of health, to include toxins in the environment,” Karmo said.

“Educating companies and consumers is critical to creating bidirectional awareness and accountability to ensure we eradicate environmental toxins, which create barriers to health and quality of life. This is a big step in the right direction to protect the health of Black women and girls.”

Janet Nudelman, director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, wants to see the list expand.

“These leading Black entrepreneurs are making safer beauty products that won’t harm the health of Black women and girls. We hope that more companies will follow their lead and grow the clean Black beauty industry by selling non-toxic beauty and personal care products that Black women can trust,” Nudelman said.

Nationally acclaimed civil rights and personal injury attorney Ben Crump and a team of lawyers recently filed a mass tort lawsuit against L’Oreal USA, on behalf of Jenny Mitchell, a 32-year-old Chicago woman who says she got uterine cancer after using the beauty brand’s chemical hair-straightening products. Mitchell also is suing related entities including Motions, Dark & Lovely, Olive Oil Relaxer, and Organic Root Stimulator.

According to a press release from Crump’s office, Mitchell, who has no family history of cancer, was diagnosed and underwent a full hysterectomy in 2018. Mitchell is the first to file suit in the wake of a new study by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that found frequent users of chemical hair-straightening products were more than twice as likely to develop uterine cancer than those who didn’t use those products. The study was conducted by the National Institute of Health’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

“Black women have long been the victims of dangerous products specifically marketed to them,” Crump said in a statement. “Black hair has been and always will be beautiful, but Black women have been told they have to use these products to meet society’s standards. We will likely discover that Ms. Mitchell’s tragic case is one of countless cases in which companies aggressively misled Black women to increase their profits.”

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