Six years ago, I felt a lump in my breast and felt utterly betrayed by my body. Three exams, two ultrasounds, and one biopsy later, doctors discovered multiple benign breast tumors that will require a lifetime of monitoring. Lumps like mine seem to show up in people whose breast tissue is sensitive to the hormone estrogen.
I was 21 and still in college, but the seeming invincibility of youth quickly fell away; I felt anxious and vulnerable like never before. But I was inspired to learn more about my body and the chemicals I was in contact with every day, in everything from hair relaxers to styling creams.
About 10 percent of women will experience the same diagnosis, fibroadenoma, in their lifetime. While fibroadenoma hasn’t been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, all I could think about was how I’d spend years living with the consequences of something I couldn’t see or feel: hormones.
Hormones affect all of us, as they carry messages between different parts of the body. We’re talking estrogens, androgens, progesterones, testosterone, and everything in between. Together, they make up the endocrine system, which impacts our reproductive health, metabolism, and a range of biological processes.
Over the years, I tried to limit my exposure to synthetic hormones, including hormonal birth control. But our society doesn’t make it easy, even when it comes to potentially harmful chemicals. For years, scientists have been studying potential links between human cancers and the growth hormones that farmers feed to livestock, to take just one example. An even more pervasive threat lurks in everything from cleaning products to cookware to fragrances: endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which I’d never even heard of until I studied environmental policy in graduate school.
“It’s pretty safe to say that everyone likely has some level of EDCs in their system,” says Heather Patisaul, associate dean for research at North Carolina State University. “There are hundreds if not thousands of EDCs in the marketplace, so it’s just a question of what your personal exposure profile looks like.”
EDCs are a class of chemicals that interfere with normal hormone function. They include “forever chemicals,” also known as PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated substances), which are found in adhesives, nonstick cookware, food packaging, and even waterproof mascara. The CDC writes that PFAS are found everywhere from the soil to our bloodstream, and that in studies that fed large amounts of them to animals, they affected reproduction, immunity, and the thyroid and liver. (The CDC also notes, “Human health effects from exposure to low environmental levels of PFAS are uncertain.”)
Other EDCs like bisphenol A (BPA) and alkylphenols target estrogen receptors. And phthalates — a chemical used to make plastic soft and flexible — can be found in a slew of cosmetics, and targets both estrogen and testosterone receptors. Even low-level exposure to EDCs can result in minute changes to the body’s natural hormonal activity.
And although illnesses can come about from a combination of genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors, environmental health researchers continue to link EDC exposure as a possible risk factor in the development of immunity related diseases, neurological diseases, reproductive disorders, and breast and uterine cancer.
Our society makes potentially harmful chemicals hard to avoid
I wanted to learn how to lower my risks from personal care items with help from science, so I joined a consumer study led by the Silent Spring Institute, a research and advocacy organization that studies toxins in the environment. For three months, I meticulously tracked my personal care, right down to the brands I used and how often I used them.
It isn’t just that beauty products are full of hard-to-pronounce and potentially harmful chemicals. The study, a partnership with the Resilient Sisterhood Project and published as the POWER study, also validated previous findings that Black women like me purchase more hair products than other groups, and that these products are more likely to contain endocrine disruptors. The results rocked me to my core.
“There’s a disparity in exposure to chemicals that act like hormones,” says Robin Dodson, a chemical exposure researcher at the Silent Spring Institute. “When you look at general health trends, Black women have higher rates of hormone-mediated diseases like uterine fibroids, aggressive forms of breast cancer, fertility issues, and are more likely to have pre-term births.” As a Black woman with my own health condition related to hormones, I was starting to see connections between health issues in my community and the products we rely on.
How I purged worrisome chemicals from my beauty care
Cosmetics are a billion-dollar industry in the US, but remain woefully underregulated. Consumer protections against harmful chemicals hinge on product labels, but labels are hard to understand and aren’t always fully transparent. We’re all living with the consequences, and Black women in particular are paying a high price. Here’s how I’ve changed my beauty care with help from science and research, and how others can too.
Use a trusted source to compare products
For me, one of the most valuable parts of joining the POWER study was having a forum to navigate hair care questions with other Black women. When researchers asked participants how we discover new product recommendations, we pointed to social media, friends, and family. How many people cross-reference those word-of-mouth recommendations with a scientific database? That’s now a core step in my discovery process.
Some companies are better at avoiding chemicals of concern than others. When I’m in doubt, I look to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database, which gives a complete profile of chemical ingredients of concern in skin and hair products.
Reviewing the Toxic-Free Beauty pocket guide, tailored for products commonly used by Black women, helped me get familiar with the chemical names I might see on product labels. Keeping tabs on the FDA’s product safety alert page informs me of product recalls and FDA consumer warnings. Apps like Think Dirty will do the research for you; simply use your phone to scan a product’s barcode, and it displays a clear overview of health impacts associated with its ingredients.
Of course, these apps are only as good as the product label itself. Since new products enter the market constantly, Detox Me, developed by the Silent Spring Institute, shares practical tips for more conscious purchasing. Tools like these draw on years of scientific evidence to help you decode product labels and steer clear of potentially harmful chemicals.
Avoid unspecified fragrances
“Secret, unlabeled fragrance chemicals are hiding in personal care products, without the public’s knowledge or consent,” says Janet Nudelman, policy and program director at the advocacy group Breast Cancer Prevention Partners. “These chemicals are often linked to both environmental and public health harms, but people don’t know because companies don’t have to disclose them.”
While the FDA requires cosmetics to list other kinds of ingredients, many fragrance chemicals are protected as trade secrets and may appear as simply “perfume” or “aroma” on product labels. Fragrances are often mixed with aldehydes, which may increase cancer risks in some people, and benzophenone derivatives, which may be endocrine disruptors, according to the advocacy coalition Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
When the campaign tested 17 of the most popular perfumes in 2010, in partnership with the Environmental Working Group, it found 14 undisclosed ingredients in the average product, among them chemicals associated with hormone disruption.
Even “unscented” products may contain fragrance ingredients to mask unpleasant smells without giving the product a notable odor.
States like California are starting to close this “fragrance loophole” with stricter product labeling laws. In the meantime, you can do your own research to avoid products with vague fragrance labeling and other undisclosed ingredients.
Understand your body and what it needs
After 10 years of relaxing my hair, I wanted to assert my newfound independence and went natural, but was soon overwhelmed by the array of creams, gels, lotions, and oils intended to smooth my curls. Trying a new hair product from the “ethnic” aisle of my local drug store became my weekend ritual. Black consumers spend nine times more on hair care than their white counterparts, and I was beginning to understand why.
Looking back, I tried too many products, including low-quality ones that actually damaged my hair, and potentially exposed myself to more harmful chemicals in the process. Instead, I wish I took the time upfront to understand what my hair needed.
Learn about your hair porosity, density, and texture (yes, even straight hair has a texture), and tailor solutions to your needs. As a type-four, low-porosity queen myself, what my hair really needed — more than it needed three different kinds of styling creams — was moisture. That’s right, plain water! Understanding your hair’s natural attributes will save you time and money on wasted products.
When researchers from the Battelle Memorial Institute tested the hair products that Black women use most frequently, a long list of chemicals turned up: cyclosiloxane, fragrances, diethyl phthalate (DEP), and parabens, all of which are known to affect the endocrine system. Chemical straighteners, also known as “relaxers,” sometimes contain carcinogens like formaldehyde and might even lead to an increased risk of breast cancer in Black women (there’s still no scientific consensus on this one). Relaxer usage among Black consumers has declined in recent years, but some women are returning to them out of convenience.
Don’t be afraid to DIY
The science of hair care may be simpler than you think. Shampoos contain surfactants that help wash away dirt, oil, and products that build up in our hair. They also balance pH and close the hair cuticle, the protective outer layer of your hair. Most hair creams and butters help to lock in moisture between washes and prevent split ends. Commercial conditioners work to seal moisture into the hair cuticle, but may rely on chemical preservatives.
If you’re only able to swap out one or two products in your rotation, consider the ones that are in contact with your body for long periods of time. “From an exposure point of view, you’ll want to reduce usage of commercial products that you leave on your hair for a longer period of time, like scalp treatments, leave-in conditioners, hair dyes, and chemical straighteners,” says Dodson.
Early on, I internalized the myth that my hair was too difficult for me to care for without the use of chemical straighteners. But I’ve realized that most of what my own hair needs — moisture retention — can be achieved with ingredients from my own kitchen.
I spent months recreating the best parts of my favorite storebought products: banana and avocado are now core ingredients in my DIY conditioner. You could consider using honey, which has emollient (hair smoothing) and humectant (water bonding) properties. Coconut oil is another great alternative, and its lauric acid delivers moisture deep into the hair shaft. Any of these natural conditioners can be used on their own or together in a hair mask, or a deep conditioning treatment for the hair.
The US needs stronger regulation of cosmetics and personal care products
In the early 1900s, cosmetics and drugs were dangerously unregulated: Lead and arsenic found their way into skin creams, and mercury brightened makeup products. As more women suffered scarring, poisonings, and in some cases death, scientists sounded the alarm about harsh chemicals in consumer goods. In 1937, elixir sulfanilamide — an untested, but heavily marketed antibiotic — killed more than 100 Americans.
Public outrage over untested pharmaceuticals and adulterated consumer goods boiled over, and Congress passed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act a year later, which allowed the FDA to regulate medical devices, cosmetics, and set standards for foods.
But medicines are regulated more closely than cosmetics, and the FDA does not order companies to recall cosmetic products that may be unsafe. “Neither the law nor FDA regulations require specific tests to demonstrate the safety of individual [cosmetic] products or ingredients,” the FDA explains on its website. “The law also does not require cosmetic companies to share their safety information with the FDA.”
While some chemicals have been outlawed (DDT, DES, lead acetate hair dyes, and BPA in baby products), the FDA has failed to prohibit many endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are still widely used in personal care products.
Politics and big business play a role in keeping regulations to a minimum, according to the experts I talked to. “The $100 billion-dollar US cosmetics industry is very invested in maintaining the status quo, and is powerfully incentivized to fight regulation,” Nudelman says. Major industry trade groups, like the Personal Care Products Council, representing 600 beauty companies, heavily promote self-regulation, through the Cosmetic Ingredient Review program (CIR).
“Industry self-regulation lacks the safeguards provided by FDA reviews. The Cosmetics Ingredient Review is financed by cosmetics manufacturers and housed inside the industry’s trade association. Many CIR findings are inconsistent with the findings by other regulatory authorities or experts,” Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, testified to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Opponents of stricter cosmetics regulation continue to muddy the link between hormone-driven disease rates and risky environmental chemicals. While some research gaps remain, an ever-growing body of evidence shows that the chemicals we absorb from our environments matter, and may be compounding existing racial disparities in health outcomes.
When Vox contacted the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors for comment, a spokesperson said that “a change in the FDA’s legal authority over cosmetics would require Congress to change the law.”
Congress has had some historical interest in better regulating cosmetics — Sens. Thomas Eagleton and Ted Kennedy tried to get traction on bills in the ’70s and ’90s, respectively, and current Rep. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has been an advocate, as well.
More recently, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) introduced a package of four Safer Beauty bills this summer. One bill would ban 11 chemicals of concern currently outlawed for use in the EU, California, and Maryland. While Schakowsky has been trying to pass versions of the package since 2009, Nudelman of the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners believes they now have a fighting chance.
“We believe this bill package to be different from past legislative attempts,” she says. “It addresses four discrete issues that are already at the forefront of people’s minds: banning toxic chemicals, increased labeling transparency, protections for women of color, and closing the fragrance loophole.”
Occasionally, I’ll see “Just for Me” — a hair relaxer containing hormonally active ingredients and marketed specifically for children — at my local drugstore. It’s the same relaxer I used up until college and my eventual diagnosis with fibroadenoma. I’m hopeful that one day, consumers won’t have to wonder whether toxins are hiding in the products that are supposed to make us feel beautiful. But until then, research can help us look out for our own health.
Paige Curtis is a Boston-based writer covering the intersection of climate, arts, and culture in such publications as Yes! Magazine and Boston Art Review. Formally trained in environmental management from the Yale School of Environment, she’s most excited by community-based solutions to the climate crisis.