Op-ed: How to achieve ‘beauty justice’ for Black people

April 28, 2023 – Communities of color, notably Black people, are disproportionately exposed to harmful chemicals via personal care items such as hair products, studies have found. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health doctoral student Marissa Chan thinks it’s important to change the societal factors driving this so-called “beauty injustice.”

Marissa Chan
Marissa Chan

Chan wrote an April 26 op-ed about the topic in Environmental Health News.

In trying to meet Western society’s beauty standard of straight and shiny hair, Black people are more likely than other groups to use products such as hair oil, hair gels, pomades, and leave-in conditioners, Chan wrote. But these products often contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals that have been linked with reproductive health issues such as early menstruation, breast cancer, and pregnancy problems.

Chan described her own early struggles with “fitting in,” feeling the need to chemically straighten her curly hair. But the use of certain personal care products is not just an individual choice, she wrote. Comments from colleagues, peers, or family members about looking “unprofessional” or “unkempt” can push people to use these products. Chan also noted that research she’s worked on at Harvard Chan School’s Environmental Reproductive Justice Lab has shown that there are more harmful or unsafe hair products available in communities of color and low-income communities compared with other communities.

“To achieve beauty justice, we need to shift conversations, research and interventions toward considering the broader drivers of product use instead of focusing solely on the individual,” Chan wrote. “There needs to be an explicit push toward ensuring that types of products typically used by the Black community are safe.”

Read the Environmental Health News article: Op-ed: It’s not just hair—fighting beauty injustice beyond the individual

Learn more

When beauty causes harm (Harvard Chan School feature)