Study links racialized beauty norms with poor health outcomes

Researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, in partnership with environmental advocacy group WE ACT for Environmental Justice, recently published a study in the journal Environmental Justice​ detailing their findings regarding the use of chemical hair straighteners and skin lightening products.

The study, which surveyed 297 woman and femme-presenting individuals, examined “racialized beauty norms that motivate the use of chemical hair straighteners and skin lighteners linked to poor health outcomes​.” When queried as to the motivation for using these products, respondents reported beauty as the leading reason.

Throughout history, BIPOC women have been the majority users of chemical hair straighteners and skin lightening products in an effort to conform to beauty standards favoring light skin and smooth/straight hair. These products can contain chemicals that can be harmful to human health, and risk can increase with frequency of use.  

The disproportionate burden of toxic chemicals from beauty products among women of color is an environmental injustice of beauty​,” study authors asserted. Further, researchers explained, “intersectional systems of oppression (i.e., racism, sexism, classism) influence Eurocentric beauty norms (e.g., societal preferences for light skin and straight hair) and racialized beauty practices, all of which can have long term consequences on the health and wellbeing of marginalized populations​.”

The study examined Black, Non-Hispanic Black, and Hispanic Black respondents’ historical use, current use habits, and perceptions surrounding the use of chemical straighteners, and the same for Asian, and Hispanic respondents regarding skin lightening products. Researchers determined that respondents’ results provide evidence suggesting “chemical straightener use has declined among Black women, in line with the rise of the natural hair movement, while skin lightener use by Asian woman remains steady​.”


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