The environmental injustice of beauty: framing chemical exposures from beauty products as a health disparities concern

Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2017 Oct;217(4):418.e1-418.e6. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2017.07.020. Epub 2017 Aug 16.


The obstetrics-gynecology community has issued a call to action to prevent toxic environmental chemical exposures and their threats to healthy human reproduction. Recent committee opinions recognize that vulnerable and underserved women may be impacted disproportionately by environmental chemical exposures and recommend that reproductive health professionals champion policies that secure environmental justice. Beauty product use is an understudied source of environmental chemical exposures. Beauty products can include reproductive and developmental toxicants such as phthalates and heavy metals; however, disclosure requirements are limited and inconsistent. Compared with white women, women of color have higher levels of beauty product-related environmental chemicals in their bodies, independent of socioeconomic status. Even small exposures to toxic chemicals during critical periods of development (such as pregnancy) can trigger adverse health consequences (such as impacts on fertility and pregnancy, neurodevelopment, and cancer). In this commentary, we seek to highlight the connections between environmental justice and beauty product-related chemical exposures. We describe racial/ethnic differences in beauty product use (such as skin lighteners, hair straighteners, and feminine hygiene products) and the potential chemical exposures and health risks that are associated with these products. We also discuss how targeted advertising can take advantage of mainstream beauty norms to influence the use of these products. Reproductive health professionals can use this information to advance environmental justice by being prepared to counsel patients who have questions about toxic environmental exposures from beauty care products and other sources. Researchers and healthcare providers can also promote health-protective policies such as improved ingredient testing and disclosure for the beauty product industry. Future clinical and public health research should consider beauty product use as a factor that may shape health inequities in women's reproductive health across the life course.

Keywords: cosmetics; endocrine-disrupting chemicals; environmental justice; health disparity; toxic environmental chemicals.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Carcinogens / toxicity
  • Cosmetics / adverse effects*
  • Endocrine System Diseases / chemically induced
  • Female
  • Health Status Disparities
  • Humans
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Outcome
  • Teratogens / toxicity
  • Women's Health


  • Carcinogens
  • Cosmetics
  • Teratogens