There’s no shortage of products on the market that manufacturers claim will defrizz hair and lighten skin—and many are marketed specifically to women of color.

According to Ami R. Zota, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, some of the products most popular among African-American, Latina, and Asian-American women are also among the most dangerous. 

Zota details the problem in a commentary she co-authored last week in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Manufacturers of beauty and personal-care products aren’t required to prove these products are safe, she explains. And Janet Nudelman, M.A., director of Breast Cancer Prevention Partner’s Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, says companies that make professional salon products aren't required to disclose what these products contain. 

For example, chemical hair straighteners, skin-lightening creams, and feminine hygiene products often contain ingredients such as phthalates and heavy metals that have been linked to hormonal changes and increased risks of cancer. Popular boxed and salon-grade hair relaxers and straighteners can contain parabens and placenta, both of which are known hormone disruptors whose use has been linked to early periods, uterine fibroid tumors, and an increased risk of breast cancer in African-American women. 

Skin-lightening creams and lotions can contain potentially harmful chemicals such as hydroquinone (a skin irritant linked to skin cancer), corticosteroids, and mercury, which have been associated with kidney and nervous-system damage and elevated blood mercury levels, the authors report. 

All women can be exposed to risky chemicals in beauty products, says Bhavna Shamasunder, Ph.D., an assistant professor of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College who wrote the commentary with Zota. But according to their research, women of color have higher levels of these potentially harmful chemicals in their bodies than Caucasian women.

The Personal Care Products Council, a group that represents the industry, defended their members and said, "Consumer and product safety are top priorities for the cosmetics and personal-care products industry, with careful and thorough scientific research and development serving as the foundation for everything we do."

Why Women of Color Are at Risk

Why might women of color be at greater risk from these products? Shamasunder says one reason is that they may use more of them and start at a younger age.

According to the commentary, chemical hair straighteners are often used on African-American girls as young as toddlers. And skin-lightening products are particularly popular among women of African, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian descent. Additionally, Shamasunder and Zota say, African-American women are more likely than Caucasian women to use douching and other feminine hygiene products, which can expose them to hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates. Additionally, douching is linked to an increased risk of infections such as bacterial vaginosis and pelvic inflammatory disease.

Adana Llanos, Ph.D., an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health and Cancer Institute of New Jersey, says there’s also a hypothesis that “the chemical composition of hair products marketed for and used among white women may differ from the products marketed for use by African-American women.”

Here are some steps you can take to keep yourself safer. 

3 Strategies for Minimizing Chemical Exposure From Personal-Care Products

“The beauty industry is largely self-regulated,” Zota says. If a product is believed to be harmful, for example, the Food and Drug Administration will intervene only after people have gotten sick. Even then, the agency typically lets the manufacturer decide whether to pull the product from store or salon shelves.

Until those rules change, consumers are largely on their own in navigating the sea of seemingly incomprehensible chemical names on products, Nudelman says.

“It is crucial for consumers to ultimately know that some exposures can be harmful,” Llanos says. “They should be aware so that they can make informed choices and minimize their exposures.”

Read labels carefully. When possible, avoid products that contain chemicals with the most robust evidence of potential harm, such as formaldehyde, mercury, toluene (an industrial solvent that can affect the nervous system), and lead. “Hair dyes, hair relaxers, nail polish, and skin-lightening creams are among the worst of the worst when it comes to beauty products,” Nudelman says. Some nail polish, for example, contains toxic chemicals such as toluene and formaldehyde that have been linked to cancer and birth defects, she says.

Just because an ingredient has a hard-to-parse name, however, doesn’t mean it’s unsafe, and more research is needed on many of these potential risks. Shamasunder says that going to the websites of some nongovernmental organizations, such as Black Women for Wellness and Safecosmetics.org, can help pinpoint chemicals of concern, where they’re found, and how to find them on product labels.

Go fragrance-free. Nathaniel DeNicola, M.D., an environmental health expert at the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and an OB-GYN faculty member at George Washington University, says that products that have fragrance tend to contain phthalates, endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Avoid them altogether by buying products labeled “fragrance free.” Keep in mind that products labeled “unscented” aren't the same as fragrance-free and may still contain phthalates, DeNicola says.

Use fewer products overall. “Part of this is questioning whether some of these products need to be used in the first place,” Zota says. “None of the products that we specifically discussed in the commentary are ‘necessary.’” Take a look at the products you use on a daily basis and eliminate those that aren’t essential—especially if they contain any of the most worrisome ingredients.