How I told the story of the ongoing struggle to protect women of color from unsafe cosmetics

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Published on
July 9, 2024

In the earliest days of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, long before there were laws designed to safeguard Americans from the harmful chemicals in cosmetics and other beauty products, there was “Lash Lure.”

One of the most popular eye makeup products of the 1930s, Lash Lure was promoted as a cosmetic that would serve as a permanent eyeliner. Advertisements of the day promised users would have a look that “radiates personality.”

But unbeknownst to anyone except the manufacturers, Lash Lure contained a substance known as p-Phenylenediamine, which has been linked to numerous adverse side effects, including skin irritation, kidney failure and convulsions.

In 1933, a dozen women were blinded and another died from using the product, which became the first cosmetic that federal officials removed from store shelves.

Two years later, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was enacted, granting the FDA oversight of cosmetics. But it wasn’t until December 2023 — some 90 years after the Lash Lure calamity — that the FDA was granted the kind of authority that would allow it to understand what kinds of chemicals were in beauty products before they went to market.

My three-part series for Inside Climate News, “Dereliction of Beauty,” sought to shed light on the implementation of a new set of sweeping federal consumer protection powers — and describe the public health challenges created by the regulatory loopholes that still remain.

The new law, the Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act (MoCRA), not only compels the manufacturers of cosmetics to disclose the ingredients that their products contain, the 2022 measure also empowers the FDA to impose mandatory recalls on harmful beauty products and requires companies to inform regulators when consumers experience adverse health effects from their products.

My connection to the series was a deeply personal one: Shortly after I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, I volunteered for a research study exploring possible links between lifestyle choices and the emergence of breast cancer in young Black women. At one point during an interview, I was taken aback when I was asked about how often I used hair care products and other cosmetics.

For any reporter who wants to cover this topic, be prepared to have your hypothesis disproved. I walked into reporting these pieces with an open mind. Everywhere I turned, I saw headline after headline about how governmental agencies were slow to act in protecting Black women and other people of color from toxic chemicals in cosmetics. What I learned through a series of records requests, however, was far more nuanced: Federal officials have long wanted to take a closer look at certain chemicals in cosmetics for years, but did not have the regulatory authority to make any significant changes. Now that lawmakers have passed the most significant additions to the FDA's regulatory authority in nearly six decades, the agency now has the power to begin making meaningful change.

Public health officials in the United States are aware of the presence of harmful substances in those products, yet government officials have taken very few steps to curtail their use. The nations of the European Union have banned the use of more than 2,500 chemicals in cosmetics. By comparison, American regulators have prohibited or restricted about a dozen.

Twelve years after my own cancer diagnosis, I had transformed from a patient in chemotherapy to a survivor who was ready to find answers to questions that had stayed with me since the day I met that researcher. For my National Fellowship project, I spent six months examining scientific data, poring over regulatory policy, and interviewing dozens of Black and brown cancer patients who suspected that their illnesses were caused by the harmful and loosely regulated chemicals in hair and beauty products.

In the process, I began to look more closely at MoCRA. While critics of the measure argue that the law still doesn’t go far enough, FDA officials are embracing their increased authority and preparing for a torrent of new information from cosmetics manufacturers.

“It's creating a floor, not a ceiling, for cosmetic safety, because there was so little law in place prior to the enactment of MoCRA,” one consumer protection advocate, Janet Nudelman, told me for the first article in the series. “There was only two pages of federal law that existed to regulate a $100 billion cosmetic industry. And now with the passage of MoCRA, there's 36 pages of new cosmetics safety law. So that's a lot.”

The first article in the series focused on how the lack of oversight of cosmetics has had a disproportionate impact on Black women consumers, who spend nine times more on ethnic hair and beauty products than women from other groups.

For instance, hair straightening products containing formaldehyde, which are often marketed toward Black women, increase the risk of certain cancers and myeloid leukemias, researchers say.

Studies have also shown that increased rates of uterine and breast cancer among Black women may also be a result of their disproportionate exposure to harmful chemicals in hair straighteners and dyes.

For some users of those products, the lack of information about dangerous substances in cosmetics was reminiscent of the fraught history of racial bias in scientific research.

“I mean, come on, the fact that they sold it to us and didn’t tell us everything,” Jeannette Toomer, who has stage 4 endometrial cancer after using hair straighteners for four decades, told me for the opening article. “It’s just a history of abusing Black people.”

The second article in the series focused on the public health threat posed by the loopholes in MoCRA.

Even with the new guidelines, federal officials are still prevented from requiring independent testing of beauty products before they are sold, prohibiting the use of so-called “forever chemicals” in cosmetics and detering manufacturers from using such labeling or marketing slogans as “clean,” “safe” or “nontoxic.”

“What did get enacted is very important,” Nudelman, the advocate, said of the new law in the second article. “But, what consumers care about is whether or not the ingredients in their products are safe. That’s where the rubber hits the road — and that’s what wasn’t dealt with in the new law.”

The final article in the series focused on the work of Heather McTeer Toney, a former EPA official, who, particularly as a Black woman, sees it as part of her personal mission to educate communities of color about environmental harms.

McTeer Toney calls upon African Americans to take a leading role in the public conversation about climate change and public health by working to “hold accountable those who have not been doing ethically what has been in the best interest for humanity.”

That effort by federal regulators to hold cosmetic manufacturers accountable began long ago with Lash Lure.

In the 1930s, Ruth deForest Lamb, the first chief education officer of the FDA, called for the strengthening of consumer protection laws, noting that incidents like the Lash Lure catastrophe occurred “not because the Government officials are incompetent or callous, but because they have no real power to prevent them.”

DeForest Lamb seemed to have a sense that the fight over safe cosmetics for consumers would have an extended life. She dedicated her 1936 book “American Chamber of Horrors” to “that gallant group of women who have been holding the frontline trenches in the consumers’ war for pure foods, drugs and cosmetics.”

Over the years, the groundbreaking work of a range of public health advocates — including, notably, the conservationist Rachel Carson in the 1960s — helped refocus the attention of the general public on the potential dangers of chemicals. Over the past half century — as a growing body of research began reinforcing the connections between toxic substances and a range of health ailments — a consumer movement centered on beauty products moved sharply forward, just as it had in the 1930s.

And my reporting has shown me that the movement — now powered by the likes of Jeanette Toomer, Janet Nudelman and Heather McTeer Toney — is still relevant, vital, and very much needed today.