Personal Care Products: Disparities in chemical exposure

Article Author: Amanda Thompson, Biology Major, Class of 2023, POB Science Coordinator

What kind of personal care products do you use the most? From skin care to hair gels and makeup to nail polish, the list of products may seem endless. When I walk into a store, my eyes are immediately drawn to moisturizing skincare and curly hair products. With my extremely sensitive skin and frizzy brown hair, I need to select the perfect products that work for me! However, every person prefers something different. Our personal care routines are unique and catered to our bodies and what makes us feel good! With this in mind, the products that we choose to put in our carts make some of us more susceptible to chemical exposure than others, increasing our body burden with each product we use. 

It has been found that many personal care products (PCPs) contain chemicals that can lead to negative health effects. Specifically, those products that contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals can lead to a breast cancer diagnosis down the line by throwing off our hormonal responses. However, what does this research mean to those of us who use certain personal care products more often than others? Specifically, what does it mean to the race/ethnicities that are being “disproportionately exposed” to these chemicals of concern? 

Through a previous U.S. survey, it was found that certain races and ethnicities had higher levels of particular endocrine disrupting chemicals in their urine, signifying that they have a greater exposure to these chemicals. Both African Americans and Mexican Americans were found to have higher urinary phthalates and parabens than White Americans. Asian Americans were found to have the highest levels of triclosan. Each of these chemicals are known endocrine-disrupting chemicals and are commonly used in personal care products, meaning that these women are most likely gaining this exposure through the products that they use. Phthalates tend to be found in color cosmetics, fragranced lotions, body washes, and hair care products. Parabens are found in creams, lotions, ointments, deodorants, shampoos/conditioners and cleansers. Triclosan is found in antibacterial soaps, antiperspirants/deodorant, toothpastes/teeth whitening products, shaving creams, and color cosmetics. Utilizing previous knowledge and the information found through this survey, researchers have been able to find linkages between the products more frequently used by certain races/ethnicities and the presence of the chemicals of concern found in these products turning up in their urine.

This makes us wonder, why are there these differences in exposure? It is believed that one of the contributors to the use of more chemically-filled products in diverse races is the presence of Eurocentric beauty standards and discrimination based on the varying odors, hair textures and skin tones found through racial/ethnic differences. 

A recent study performed in November of 2022 looked into this issue through documenting the personal care products that were frequently marketed toward or purchased by Black, Latina and Vietnamese women in their Californian communities. They created a sample size of 546 unique hair, skin, makeup, nail, deodorant, perfume, and intimate care products. They then looked at the chemicals of concern found on the ingredient labels of each product as well as performed an additional analysis in which 31 products (including shampoos, hair styling creams, face cleanser/creams, body lotions, deodorant, makeup and intimate care products) were screened for additional chemicals of concern that may have not been listed on the labels of the products. These could be chemicals found under the umbrella term “fragrance”.

Results found that “65% of the labels included chemicals of concern” and “74% of the labels had undisclosed ingredients listed as ‘fragrance’”. These chemicals included parabens and formaldehyde releasers, both of which are known endocrine-disrupting chemicals. On top of this, the additional analysis detected even more chemicals of concern found in the solvents, preservatives, ultraviolet filters, and contaminants in the products. In total 59 unique chemicals of concern were found, 15 of which were on the TEDX list as potential endocrine disruptors! 

While all races/ethnicities had specific chemicals of concern found in the products that were most frequently used by or marketed toward them, Black women had the highest percentage. Of the products representing the Black community, 71% contained chemicals of concern, and 93% contained undisclosed fragrance ingredients. 

While the researchers admit that they did not conduct the most holistic review with a limited number of product labels being reviewed, this study was still “one of the first detailed assessments of chemicals of concern found in various types of personal care products used by several racial/ethnic groups,” making its results that much more alarming and important to expand on. Specifically, the researchers labeled this study significant, as it can be used to “estimate disparities in chemical exposure” as well as paired with research on “health inequalities due to chemical exposure from various contributors”. 

Further research is needed to better understand the significance of these results and how they can be addressed and prevented in the marketplace. Specifically, we need to educate people on the disparities in chemical exposure and promote choosing safer alternatives, regardless of how different the products that we choose may be. We know that chemicals of concern found in personal care products can be exposed to us through “[skin] absorption, inhalation, ingestion, and possibly indirectly, through contamination of the indoor environment,” so the smartest thing to do for yourself and the people around you is avoid these chemicals altogether. When shopping, look for phthalate-free and paraben-free personal care products, as these are commonly used in the self-care industry. If possible, choose USDA Organic, NaTrue, COSMOS, or EcoCert certified products. Visit the to learn more about the chemicals to avoid and the certifications to seek in the store!


Johnson, P.I., Favela, K., Jarin, J. et al. Chemicals of concern in personal care products used by women of color in three communities of California. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol (2022).



The information provided herein is the author’s opinion. Our authors are not scientists. We are not providing medical advice, but simply sharing publicly available information. When we reference data and databases, we do so with the caveat that most are only as good as the data they are based on. While POB strives to make the information as timely and accurate as possible, we make no claims, promises, or guarantees about the completeness, or adequacy of the contents of any site that is shared, and expressly disclaims liability for errors and omissions in the contents of these sites. POB goes to great lengths to avoid declaring shared products as “safe” as there is no legal definition of the word “safe” at this time.

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