By Alexa Santory
Our exposure to beauty starts at a very young age, oftentimes in our local drugstore. Walking through the aisles of brightly lit displays filled to the brim with sleek, colorful, plastic products, hoping your mom would let you pick out just one thing brings up some intense feelings of nostalgia. If only we knew then what we know now about what’s actually in those products. The reality is that beauty brands, both drugstore and prestige alike, have been using some pretty nasty stuff to make their products since before we were even born.
Luckily, the massive boom of the beauty industry in the past 5 or so years has led to a greater level of transparency between the brand and the consumer. People are now a lot more interested in knowing what’s going into their products and what’s going on their bodies. Today we break down some of these harmful ingredients, including ones that are most often used in products targeted towards Black women, and why you should avoid them.
Toxic Ingredients to Avoid
In more recent years, your trips to the local drugstore or beauty supply to re-up on your favorite products have probably been met with a ton of ~new and improved~ formulas. Brands are putting the bad stuff front and center and are finally starting to tell you that they’re not so bad for you anymore! See! No parabens! In that same vein, how many of us actually knew what a paraben was until these recent years? You probably start to wonder how long it’s been that they’ve being using these so-called “bad” ingredients. Let’s take the wonder out of equation and introduce you to some of the toxic ingredients in your beauty products that you should always avoid.
You’ve probably seen tons of labels advertising the fact that they no longer use this mysterious ingredient. But do we actually know what they are? Parabens are a preservative, first introduced in the 50’s to help increase the shelf life of health and beauty products. Seems harmless enough right? Studies have found that parabens are able to penetrate the skin and live in the tissue for a very, very long time, which could lead to a slew of health problems including disrupted hormones. They’ve even been linked to a higher risk of developing breast cancer and reproductive issues.
When I think of sulfates, I think of dry, stringy hair. That’s because sulfates are formulated to break down and emulsify grease, dirt, and oil, which is all well and good for a dish soap but definitely not for our hair! Brands have been using sulfates in shampoos and conditioners as a means to keep the hair clean but all it really does is strip everything away, even the good stuff. If you want to retain moisture, bounce, and shine in your hair, get rid of products that contain sulfates!
One of the biggest secrets of the beauty industry is that “fragrance” is never just one scent but an amalgamation of scents, most often made up of chemicals that are really, really bad for you. And brands are allowed to not tell you what makes up this so-called fragrance because of a loophole. While they used to be more naturally derived and kept secret in order to avoid their formulas being stolen, the synthetic fragrances we know today are made of a bunch harmful chemicals like phthalates, benzene, and aldehydes, along with tons of other toxic chemicals that happen to be on the EPA’s toxic waste list. The chemicals in synthetic fragrances have been linked to allergies and skin irritation, certain cancers, reproductive issues, and birth defects. The best way to go is fragrance free.
This ingredient is super controversial because it’s already been banned in so many countries, but hydroquinone is used to lighten and brighten the skin. While it is the most effective skin brightening agent out there, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with risks. High concentrations of hydroquinone can lead to major skin irritation, as well as permanent skin color change. It’s also used in skin bleaching products — a product that comes with tons of controversy in Black and brown communities alike. While brightening dark spots, hyperpigmentation, and acne scars is something almost everyone strives for when it comes to their complexion, there are much safer ingredients to use that can help.
This stuff is so common in beauty products (even super high end ones), yet it’s so cheap and so bad for your skin that you kinda start to wonder why brands even do this to us! Mineral oil comes from petroleum (you know, the stuff gasoline is made out of) and was mainly used as a lubricant at first until companies started to use it in their products as a more of a cheap moisturizing agent. The thing is, it doesn’t moisturize beyond the very surface level and actually suffocates your skin more than anything. It’s highly comedogenic, can cause some major breakouts, and causes skin to age prematurely! It’s also been found to have effects on our hormones with prolonged use. If you ever pick up a product and see that this is the first ingredient, especially in skincare, put it back. It’s not worth it, sis.
Why are women of color exposed to more toxic ingredients?
Societal and social pressures to fit in and meet the status quo are reflected in the products that are marketed towards women of color. Up until pretty recently, we didn’t see a lot of products for us, by us — everything was just some strange amalgamation of what we’ve been told we should look like. And these standards came with a price. In beauty products marketed towards women of color, an average of 1 in 12 was found to contain harmful ingredients. The biggest and most prevalent example is, without a doubt, the chemical relaxer. This is a product that has been met with as much controversy as it has praise. Relaxers contain lye, a chemical that permanently changes the hair’s curl pattern, that also contains sodium hydroxide, a chemical with a pH of 10 to 14 (aka a super strong acid).
In 1997, a study that was published in Black Women’s Health stated that there was a link between the use of chemical relaxers and the development of fibroids--which plague a huge number of Black women. Exposing our scalps and our bodies to a chemical of this caliber comes with tons of damage and prolonged exposure has been linked to health issues like premature birth and low birth weight, baldness, and growths in the uterus. There’s also the risk of chemical burns, major scalp damage, and almost irreparable hair damage. While straightening our hair to meet mainstream standards of beauty is far from a new concept, it shouldn’t have to come at such a massive price.
How To Embrace More Natural Ingredients
Since brand transparency has become a much more common practice over recent years, consumers are more aware of what’s going in their products and on their bodies. This is a good thing! If you’re new to the whole ~natural beauty product~ game, you’ve come to the right place! Belle Bar specializes solely in providing you all with the best of the best natural ingredients in our products. Synthetic ingredients have become the new normal due to high demand and mass production, but natural has always been the way to go. The planet provides us with all of the resources we need to look and feel beautiful.
When it comes to our hair and skin routines, it’s so important to use as many natural ingredients as possible — they’re only going to improve the look and feel of your hair and skin over time, and being that skin is our largest organ, what you put on it is incredibly important. Curly haired people know that having curly hair requires a certain level of care and patience. Plus, a lot of drugstore and mainstream curly hair products hinder the growth and improvement of the curls, especially if they’re damaged. From personal experience, using natural products has helped reverse the damage in my hair faster than any drugstore brand ever has. I’m lookin’ at you Restorative Hibiscus Mask!
There are so many brands that use natural ingredients in their products, but always make sure that they don’t include any of the toxic ones listed above. If you’re unsure or skeptical of certain ingredients in your products, sites like Skin Deep and Paula’s Choice offer in depth explanations about all of the ingredients in beauty products. Don’t be afraid to venture out from your normal routine! Chances are you may find something that changes your hair and skin game for the better. And don’t be afraid of prices either — organic and natural doesn’t always mean expensive. I encourage everyone to browse through our selection of products because there’s definitely something here for every hair and skin type.