(CBS4) — Maya McPherson starts every appointment with full disclosure.
“I walk them through each product that I use,” she said. “I try to educate them, and let them know what I use, what’s all in the products, and how safe it is for them and their children.”
A majority of the products McPherson uses come from her own line, Shelby Rain Beauty, an idea that stemmed from wanting to better serve her clients, made of mostly Black women and natural hair.
“I started to kind of realize that some of the products that I was using, that I was used to, especially just in our community, it just wasn’t doing what it needed to do for us,” said McPherson. “I want to make sure that we are being provided the right nutrients, the right vitamins, the right ingredients for our hair.”
All McPherson’s products, which include everything from shampoos and conditioners to hair serums and moisturizers, are all marketed as “vegan-friendly” and “free of sulfates, parabens and artificial dyes”, a few simple words that offer peace of mind to consumers.
Putting a fine-tooth comb to hair and personal care products
New research is putting the spotlight on the impact of continuous exposure to some chemicals used in hair and personal care products.
One of the main ingredients under the microscope? Parabens.
Dr. Kristen Govert, a breast surgical oncologist at Ascension St. Vincent in Indianapolis, said parabens are found in a variety of products as a preservative.
“They’re used to help reduce mold, bacteria growth in things like foods, cosmetics, makeup, hair products, shaving products, all kinds of things actually,” she said. “Basically, they just extend the shelf life of these common things that we use every day.”
However, besides their role as a preservative, Govert said parabens are also considered as Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals, or EDCs.
“We know that they definitely disrupt the endocrine system, meaning that they do have an effect on our hormones, and we know hormones are really important, particularly in things like development, fertility and also in breast cancer,” Govert said.
In June, The City of Hope shared its findings in a study on parabens, comparing its effects on breast cancer cells in Black and White women. Researchers found parabens increased growth in the Black breast cancer cell line, an effect that was not seen in the White breast cancer cell line at the same tested dose.
Researchers also noted that Black women are more likely to buy products containing parabens as survey results showed fewer “paraben-free” options marketed to them.
“If we know Black women might use more products with parabens, how does that affect breast cancer? Because we know Black women have a higher risk of breast cancer, particularly breast cancers that are more aggressive,” said Govert.
In October, another study from the National Institutes of Health was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Researchers studied the hair product use of more than 33,000 women. In it, researchers found women, who used chemical hair-straightening products at least four times a year, were more likely to develop uterine cancer.
Though researchers did not collect information on brands or ingredients of products used by study participants, they did note chemical hair-straighteners can contain EDCs, like parabens and bisphenol A, along with other chemicals, and could also contribute to the increased uterine cancer risk.
Researchers also noted that Black women could be at higher risk as they are shown to use these products more frequently.
A nationwide fight to limit the exposure
For decades, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners has pushed for ingredient transparency and safer products in the beauty industry through its Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which is based in San Francisco, California.
“No one is minding the store when it comes to the safety of the ingredients in beauty and personal care products,” said Director Janet Nudelman.
Nudelman said it’s a fight that they are actively taking to U.S. Congress through the Safer Beauty Bill Package. The bill, which was introduced in the House in October 2021, includes a suite of four bills meant to better regulate ingredient transparency, safer products and help protect the most vulnerable, specifically women of color.
The bills include commitments to “ban the worst first”, which are what BCPP lists as 11 of the most toxic chemicals (mercury, formaldehyde, parabens, phthalates, phenylenediamines (hair dye chemicals), and the entire class of PFAS “forever” chemicals), defend the health of women of color and salon workers, reveal fragrance and flavor ingredients and entire supply chain transparency.
“The bill package is making its way through Congress, but legislative journeys tend to be very long and complicated ones,” said Nudelman. “We’re still hopeful that the bill package will be addressed before the end of the year.”
“If it isn’t heard in the current Congress, the plan is for the entire bill package to be reintroduced in the new Congress, which will start in January of 2023,” she added, “and then, we’re going to work our hardest to make sure it gets the attention it deserves.”
In the meantime, Nudelman said they are working hard to help everyone, especially Black women, limit their exposure to toxic chemicals. In October 2022, the campaign launched the Black Beauty Project, an online database of non-toxic, Black-owned beauty products, vetted by campaign organizers.
Through the free service, anyone can search the database by brand, product types, categories or price range. By clicking on a product, users can view a breakdown of its ingredients and learn more about the brand and other products by it.
Nudelman said this service is a huge need as Black women are among the top consumers in the beauty industry.
“They spend $7.5 billion a year on Black beauty products. They spend nine times more on hair care products than any other demographic,” she said, “and unfortunately, they’re marketed the most toxic beauty and personal care products out of any other demographic.”
Limiting the exposure
Experts said the best way to protect yourself is by limiting the exposure. As legislation has only passed in some states, there are steps you can take now for peace of mind.
Dr. Govert said it starts with paying attention to what you are putting on or in your body. If you find yourself buying everyday products in the store, for example, look at the ingredients label for parabens.
“It has the word paraben in it,” she said. “There’s like four very common ones, they’re going to look like chemical names, but if you look within the chemical name, it does say paraben in the chemical name.”
Govert also recommended apps that can help you scan or break down ingredients of products in detail, like the Environmental Working Group’s ‘Healthy Living’ app.
“On that app, they break down different products,” she said. “So, if you search for the sunscreen that you use every day, it breaks down the products. It tells you whether or not there are worrisome chemicals in there.”
Inside the salon, McPherson said there is power in transparency with open dialogue between stylist and client, ask questions and educate each other about the ingredients in the products used on you.
“I think the biggest thing is making sure you educate yourself on what you’re using,” McPherson said, “Look up the different chemicals, look up the brand itself and see how it originated and how it came about.”
If you are out shopping on your own, McPherson said the first few ingredients can also be telling about certain products.
“You want to make sure you’re looking at the first, let’s say, 10 ingredients that come up on the list of ingredients,” McPherson said. “The first few ingredients are going to be what’s mostly used inside of that product.”
Lastly, McPherson said do not be fooled by a brand just because “natural” is advertised in its name. She said this is especially true for the Black community.
“Now that we are all converting from relaxers, we’re converting into being natural. So, we have these products that are full of toxic, harmful chemicals, and we have these products marketing as natural because ‘boom, that gets our attention’,” McPherson said. “We have great products, and they are Black-owned, but they are bought out and companies go in and change the ingredients without letting us know.”