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Do product hazards vary by the group the product is marketed to?

Hormone disruption. Reproductive damage. Cancer.

These are the health effects suspected -- but not proven -- to be caused by certain hazardous ingredients in everyday personal care products, according to a new report by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. These potential health effects are troubling, but perhaps even more disquieting is the safety differential between personal care products marketed toward African-American women and those marketed to the general public.

For a major project called "Skin Deep," the EWG collected and analyzed 64,000 cosmetics and personal care items, about 1,177 of which were marketed toward African-American women. After testing each product, they assigned each one a rating on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning the product carried a low hazard risk and 10 being considered highly hazardous. 

The researchers found that, while highly hazardous products were marketed equally to African-Americans and other women, there were substantially fewer low-hazard products available to African-American women. Of cosmetics and personal care products generally, around 40 percent were rated a 1, but among those marketed to African-American women, only 25 percent got the best rating.

Lye-based hair relaxers were among the more hazardous products, as you might expect. Lye is still an ingredient in many hair relaxers and dyes marketed to black women because it breaks down the hair shaft. Unfortunately, no-lye relaxers weren't necessarily any safer, as they sometimes contained other hazardous ingredients that can cause chemical burns. Other chemical straighteners have been linked to baldness and an increased risk of uterine growths.

It's impossible to say at this point why the availability of the safest products differs between racial marketing groups. When bad products are on the market but haven't caused substantial injuries yet, personal injury lawyers don't have much to do but watch for problems.

The potential benefits of the Skin Deep database are nevertheless clear. "When consumers become educated," said one of the report's co-authors, "they can demand companies change their formulation, or they can choose other companies to purchase from. People can demand companies prioritize their safety." 

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