Pinkwashing and the Environmental Injustice of the Beauty Industry

by Contributing Writer Nancy Moran RN, MS

Each October during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, everything from diamond-encrusted ribbons, sports uniforms, to beauty product packaging are awash in pink. Yet, before there was a pink ribbon, there were peach-colored ones handmade in 1992 by Charlotte Haley, whose granddaughter, sister, and mother had all battled breast cancer. She was upset that only 5% of the National Cancer Institute’s budget at that time went towards cancer prevention research. Haley rejected offers from Estée Lauder and Self magazine to market her peach ribbons over concerns that her prevention message would be lost and/or commercialized. Thus, the peach ribbon was replaced with a pink one by the two companies.

“Pinkwashing,” as defined by the Breast Cancer Consortium, is the act of supporting the breast cancer cause or promoting a pink ribbon product while producing or selling products linked to the disease. The definition has been expanded to include marketing campaigns that exploit breast cancer for profit and public relations purposes. Breast Cancer Action suggests that consumers “Think before they pink”  by making sure that they are not purchasing products with ingredients that have been shown to contribute to the growth of cancer cells.

According to research from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, the average American uses nine personal care products every day, which include 126 unique ingredients. One out of every five products contained ingredients which are known, or probable human carcinogens. Few consumers are aware that they may be using lead-containing lipstick, soaking up estrogen-mimicking parabens and phthalates via skin lotions and hair relaxers, coloring their hair with coal tar-based dyes, or cleansing themselves with bath products and shampoos containing formaldehyde-releasing preservatives.

A study published in  Environmental Research specifically measured the concentrations of endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in hair products marketed to African-American women. These chemicals can interfere with the production, secretion, and effects of hormones. Their use may contribute to higher rates of some hormone-related health conditions, including preterm birth, early puberty, uterine fibroids, infertility, and increased risks of aggressive forms of endometrial and breast cancers among African-American women. A fact sheet based on the results of this study was created in partnership with Black Women for Wellness and the Silent Spring Institute

It sounds the alarm that African-American women and girls are overexposed to and underprotected from largely unregulated and inadequately tested chemicals found in hair and other personal care products. A position paper published in American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology reports that women of color have “higher levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as phthalates and parabens, in their bodies compared with white women and that these racial/ethnic differences are not explained by socioeconomic status.”  

The International Federation of Obstetrics and Gynecology urges health professionals to take an “environmental injustice of beauty” approach by addressing how racialized beauty norms, such as straightened hair and lighter skin, combined with targeted marketing can contribute to health disparities for women of color. Furthermore, as the authors of The Environmental Injustice of Beauty: Understanding the Links between Beauty Products and Health Among Women of Color point out, the use of these products adds to the chemical body burden of women who are already more likely to live in polluted neighborhoods and be exposed to unsafe chemicals on the job.

African-American women purchase an estimated $7.5 billion annually on beauty products, spending 80% more on cosmetics and twice as much on skin care as their white counterparts. Compared with white women, African-American and African- Caribbean women are more likely to use a greater number and variety of hair products and to have their hair chemically or professionally treated. The manner in which some products are marketed underscores white supremacist values and the prominence of European beauty norms in advertisements, films, and television. For some African-American women, this can lead to a sense of internalized racism, body shame, and dissatisfaction with their skin tone and hair texture

Today, the European Union has banned, or restricted, the use of more than 1,300 chemicals in cosmetics alone in contrast to just 11 in the United States. Many of the standard ingredients found in US products have been  shown to be hormone disruptors  that can remain stored in the human body. Given that the federal government provides such little control of ingredients found in personal care and hair products, consumers have to do their own product research.  

Local natural skin and hair care product creator Natassha Brown learned this after her son was diagnosed with eczema. After looking up the product ingredients found in over-the- counter eczema treatments, she was shocked at what she found. She decided to create her own skin and hair care products using carefully selected natural ingredients she knew she could trust. She now sells them on her Texture Natural Beauty Supply Etsy page.

“As a black mother, I must go to  extra lengths in order to safeguard my health and well-being,” says Brown.  “It’s not just having enough physical activity or eating healthy foods; we have to pay attention to the ingredients in hair and skin products. The ingredients in the vast majority of products for black people are so harmful and sub-par that they can lead to cancer, among other diseases. This blatant disregard for the welfare of others is repugnant, to say the least.”

In fact, the last time that cosmetic regulations were passed by Congress was in 1938.  The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010, which would have updated said regulations, never came up for a vote in Congress.  If it had been passed, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would have had the authority to prohibit the use of known carcinogens and developmental toxins in personal care products and cosmetics and to recall unsafe products.

“If there isn’t going to be a ban on these harmful ingredients, there should be a warning label put in place but apparently that’s too much to ask,” said Brown. “Until policies are in place to help protect all consumers, we have to diligently check the labels and stick with natural and simple ingredients.”

Brown has a family history of breast cancer, including her grandmother and her mother who both died from the disease. Her sister, Delmena Tillman, was diagnosed 3 years ago at the age of 39. Tillman credits her sister’s knowledge and support with saving her life.

“Natassha gave me tons of information and helped me to eat the right foods, use the right products, and stayed on me to make the necessary decisions to rid my body of the toxins,” said Tillman. “She motivated me to drink lots of water, take the right natural supplements, and exercise to sweat out the toxins.”

Whether one has a family history of breast cancer or not, Tillman stresses prevention and urges black women and girls to “choose natural hair products without carcinogens.” Although today Tillman is cancer free, she remains on a maintenance medication which wreaks havoc on her body and causes mood swings. Her hair is thin and her scalp has bald spots. She has scars from both a double mastectomy and a hysterectomy. Her sister still provides her with natural products and advice to help her cope and remain healthy. Tillman is disturbed by research which “shows nearly all hair and cosmetic products targeted towards African-Americans contain some type of carcinogen.”

Tillman urges women to perform a self-breast exam monthly and “If you have a family history, it is even more important to advocate for yourself and request a mammogram as early as possible.” 

After the flurry of pink products and breast cancer fundraisers in October are over, both breast cancer awareness and prevention can continue year-round by rejecting harmful skin, hair, and personal hygiene products marketed to African-American women.

“The way our hair naturally grows from our scalp has been, and will continue to be, something political,” says Brown. “How could black people not feel some type of internal anguish towards ourselves or our peers? It’s a continuation of slavery in its many forms. It’s saddening and disheartening.”

Additional Resources

Product safety information for cosmetics can be found on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database

A download of the PDF Think Pink, Live Green: A Step-by-Step Guide to Reducing Your Risk of Breast Cancer provides 31 risk-reducing steps in a variety of areas.

Free mammograms and breast-related diagnostic procedures and surgical services for Oklahomans of any age with no health insurance and limited financial resources are available at locations statewide through Oklahoma Project Woman.     

The Tulsa Health Department provides clinical breast exams, along with pap smears and other health screenings at a minimum cost.

Delmena Tillman and Natassha Brown are pictured in the forefront with their mother Vivian Westbrook seated behind them. (Photo credit: Delmena Tillman)