Across the world, Black women are ditching the silk press and embracing their natural hair in a growing movement, rejecting Eurocentric beauty standards. But taking care of their natural hair can be expensive. In the United States alone, Black Americans collectively spent $473 million on hair care in 2017, with Black women buying nine times as many products than white women on average.
But with products filled with unpronounceable chemicals like linalool methylparaben and methylisothiazolinone, one might begin to wonder: What exactly are Black women putting in their hair, and what does it mean for their health?
This question piqued the interest of associate professor of Environmental Reproductive Epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health Tamarra James-Todd. She first heard how toxic chemicals in hair products adversely impact young girls during a lecture in an environmental health course. But after searching for an answer, she quickly found that few studies had looked at the health effects of the products that she and her peers grew up using as Black women.
“I found two studies total at the time on hair product use and any risk factors, particularly chronic disease risk factors that were related to reproductive health outcomes,” James-Todd says. “Why is it that I can find a number of things on hair dyes, but I can’t find much of anything on products that people of color might be using more?”
Filling in this critical gap eventually became the aim of James-Todd’s doctoral dissertation, culminating in the Greater New York Hair Products Study. Data from 359 women across the New York City-area confirmed racial patterns in hair product usage with Black women most likely to use hair oil when compared to Latina and white women. The study also found an important link between hair product usage and health: those who used hair oil in childhood were almost twice as likely to report having their first period before the age of 12, an established risk factor for developing breast cancer later in life.
James-Todd believes the dearth of available data on this glaring health issue was in part due to a cultural blindspot on behalf of researchers.
“I’m not talking about shampoo and conditioner. I’m talking about things that people put on and then add on again, and then again,” she says.
Since many researchers weren’t familiar with the kinds of hair products and routines used more frequently by women of color, “the value of those questions wasn’t being taken as seriously,” she says.
Now the founder of the Environmental Reproductive Justice Lab at the Harvard’s School of Public Health, James-Todd focuses on understanding how environmental exposures adversely affect women’s reproductive health with a particular focus on pregnancy and postpartum maternal health.
Armed with a team of research assistants, scientists, and students, the lab explores how personal care products impact maternal health at a molecular level. In 2021, James-Todd and colleagues reported that Black women were more likely to use hair products with ingredients like placenta or parabens. The team then sent a sample of commonly used hair products to the laboratory and found that they caused levels of estrogen to rise, which increases the risk of developing ovarian cancer. The results suggest a reasonable biological mechanism to explain how chemicals in the bottle might harm Black women’s health.
The team has also studied what specific products might be more harmful. In 2022, James-Todd and colleagues found that pregnant women who reported using hair oil had higher rates of harmful chemicals in their bodies than those who use hair lotion and leave-in conditioners. For James-Todd and colleagues, these findings could help specify ways to reduce exposure to reproductive toxins.
The team is also sensitive to how larger forces differentially shape exposure to harmful chemicals. Marissa Chan, a current Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Environmental Health, is collecting data on more than 26,000 hair products in over 24 Boston neighborhoods to determine the racial and ethnic differences between areas with easily accessible safer hair products and those without.
“So people who are using these products, perhaps because of the socially driven factors, are having things impacting their hormone receptors, and that could be contributing to the differences that we’re seeing in health outcomes,” James-Todd says. She notes, however, that these associations are still being rigorously tested.
But beyond changing what products people buy, the Environmental Reproductive Justice Lab is sensitive to how individual choices to buy unsafe beauty products are shaped by policy.
“Up until just earlier this year, our laws and policies around that had not changed since the 1930s. Even now, the change that has occurred doesn’t have the level of protection that is set in other countries,” James-Todd says, pointing at a lack of regulation in beauty products as a potential cause for disparities.
James-Todd hopes to closely engage with the communities most directly impacted by environmental health disparities by partnering with them in the research process. “You can’t come and do research within or on communities or populations without representation of those community members,” James-Todd says.
To that end, James-Todd serves as the director of the Community Engagement Core for Harvard’s Metals and Metal Mixtures, Cognitive Aging, Remediation and Exposure Sources Superfund Research Center. In this role, she partners with a local faith-based organization to develop an environmental science research curriculum for children living in communities most impacted by her work.
“It was a really phenomenal opportunity to have kids get inspired by bioscience and also think through what they can do about it,” James-Todd says. Besides having students develop and test their own scientific hypotheses, the program brings in environmental justice activists to show “how children and teens and young adults can really be strong advocates and activists involved in the environmental justice movement.”
James-Todd says achieving health equity is impossible without the contributions of other scientists of color, especially those of the younger generation. “You bring your own unique experiences and set of questions to the table that are just as valuable, just as important, and in fact, when we are dealing with and grappling with health disparities and environmental justice issues, may be even more important than the things that we are studying,” she says. “Without your voices, we can’t achieve health equity.”
James-Todd hopes her research will reach the broader public, so she created the “Beauty + Justice” podcast, which debuted in November 2022. In each episode, James-Todd sits down with women of color that are experts in the fields of beauty, health, and science and explores the social context of problematic beauty standards and their adverse impacts on people’s physical and mental health.
“As academics, particularly in a place and space and moment in time where our expertise is being challenged, I think part of that scientific misinformation, or misinformation in general, and disinformation that is out there really stems from our lack of accountability, and taking ownership and responsibility for translating our work,” James-Todd says. For her, the onus is on researchers to make sure their research is “accessible to everyone, that people can understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”
In November 2022, James-Todd received the School of Public Health’s Alice Hamilton Award, which is given to a female faculty member to recognize their impact on public health and their future promise.
“My ‘why’ is giving voice to people who have had less voice than me,” James-Todd says. “I’m here for that reason, and for such a time as this.”
— Magazine writer Nicolas Dominguez-Carrero can be reached at email@example.com.
— Magazine writer Mariah M. Norman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mariahnorman03.