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Black Woman With Breast Cancer on Link Between Beauty Products, Cancer

  • Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer, but are often overlooked in trials that study the disease.
  • A team of community-based researchers – including a survivor, hair stylist, and more – are working to prevent these deaths.
  • The research initiative studied toxic chemicals in beauty products marketed to Black women.

Tiah Tomlin-Harris got breast cancer at the age of 38, with no family history of the disease.

Tomlin-Harris, who has a masters in chemistry and works in the pharmaceutical industry, suspects that her lifestyle may have contributed to the development of cancer.

Just after receiving her diagnosis, she asked a social worker at the hospital if there was anything she should do to prevent her cancer from getting worse, or coming back after remission. She mentioned that she had read about chemicals in beauty products being linked to cancer risk.

The social worker declined to participate, Tomlin-Harris said. She told Tomlin-Harris to keep using the products she likes because there’s nothing she can do — that lifestyle changes won’t work.

Research on chemicals in personal care products and breast cancer is still lacking, according to the American Cancer Society. But new studies have identified two groups of chemicals in beauty products that may be linked to cancer: parabens, which are preservatives found in beauty, hair, shaving, and makeup products; and phthalates, which are used in nail polish and hairspray.

Tiah Tomlin-Harris is a cancer survivor who is spreading awareness about cancer-causing chemicals in beauty products

Breast cancer survivor Tiah Tomlin-Harris


In 2019, Tomlin-Harris joined the California-based research initiative Bench2Community to ensure that other Black women could get better information on the toxins in beauty products than she did. The team conducts research on how chemicals in beauty products may uniquely affect Black women, and will share new ideas as they become available.

“There are beauty supply stores everywhere in our community, on every corner,” Tomlin-Harris told Insider. “Beauty supply stores have harmful chemicals in them. So how do we get this message out to the community?”

Beauty products can be a unique risk to black women

Increasingly, researchers are beginning to raise the alarm that beauty products may be a major factor driving up cancer rates — especially breast cancer — among young black women. Most recently, City of Hope researchers found that parabens significantly increased the growth of breast cancer cells in black women compared to white women.

Black women spend more than other demographics on beauty and hair products, according to Nielsen data, and many products marketed to them contain parabens and phthalates.

Dede Teteh, a behavioral scientist and assistant professor of public health at Chapman University, said the spending probably stems from the discrimination they face for wearing their natural hair in white-dominated areas.

Black women under 45 are more likely to get breast cancer compared to white women and disproportionately die from the disease. Breast cancer was the leading cause of cancer death among demographics in 2019.

Despite the lack of research on cancer-causing chemicals in beauty products, many studies have primarily used white participants, according to Teteh.

Lindsey S. Treviño, PhD, a Bench2Community researcher, and postdoctoral fellow Jazma L. Tapia analyzed the gene expression data

Lindsey S. Treviño, PhD, a Bench2Community researcher, and postdoctoral fellow Jazma L. Tapia analyzed the gene expression data


For example, Black Americans have 22% of multiple myeloma, although a May 2021 analysis found that they comprised only 4.5% of participants in scientific trials that studied people with that which is cancer.

“The people conducting these studies are also not people of color,” said Lindsey S. Treviño, an assistant professor at City of Hope and Bench2Community researcher. “You study what you like, or what you care about, in the laboratory.”

Bench2Community puts the Black Southern California community at the forefront of breast cancer research, education, and advocacy

Teteh and Tomlin-Harris are among the Bench2Community team of eight researchers and community advisors. The team also includes certified cosmetologist Tonya Fairley and D. Bing Turner, a Southern California-based public health advocate.

“As scientists, we take a shotgun, but who’s in the driver’s seat, that’s really the community members,” Teteh said.

The team shares the latest research with the Southern California community in the form of salon talks and symposiums, including an upcoming one in September. Over the past few years, Bench2Community has lobbied in support of a suite of four federal bills that would ban beauty companies from using parabens and phthalates.

A post shared by Bench to Community (@bench2community)

Although she likes Bench2Community’s mission, Teteh says community conversations can sometimes discourage black women who are tired of changing their lifestyles to correct racial disparities in medicine. .

“If the message I get to other Black women reading this article, it might just be this: ‘I get it. I know you’re tired,'” Teteh said. “It is shitty that we have to live in a society that does not protect us … But at the same time, if we continue to show ourselves and we are comfortable in our skin, I think that it is enough.”

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