- Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer, but are often overlooked in trials studying the disease.
- A team of community-based researchers — plus a survivor, hair stylist, and more — are working to prevent these deaths.
- The research initiative is studying toxic chemicals in beauty products marketed to Black women.
Tiah Tomlin-Harris got breast cancer at 38, without any family history of the disease.
Tomlin-Harris, who has a masters in chemistry and worked in the pharmaceutical industry, suspected her lifestyle might have contributed to the cancer’s development.
Just after receiving her diagnosis, she asked a social worker at the hospital if there was anything she should be doing to prevent her cancer from worsening, or coming back after remission. She mentioned that she’d read about chemicals in beauty products being linked to cancer risk.
The social worker refused to engage, Tomlin-Harris said. She told Tomlin-Harris to keep using the products she wants because there’s nothing she can do — that lifestyle changes don’t work.
Research on chemicals in personal care products and breast cancer is still lacking, according to the American Cancer Society. But recent studies have identified two groups of chemicals in beauty products that might be linked to cancer: parabens, which are preservatives found in beauty, hair, shaving, and makeup products; and phthalates, used in nail polish and hairspray.
In 2019, Tomlin-Harris joined the California-based research initiative Bench2Community to ensure other Black women get better information on toxins in beauty products than she did. The team is conducting research into how chemicals in beauty products may uniquely impact Black women, and sharing new insights as soon 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 messaging out into the community?”
Beauty products may pose a unique risk to Black women
Increasingly, researchers are starting to raise the alarm that beauty products could be a significant factor driving up rates of cancer — particularly breast cancer — among young Black women. Most recently, researchers at the City of Hope found parabens uniquely increase the growth of breast cancer cells in Black women compared to white women.
Dede Teteh, a behavioral scientist and assistant professor of public health at Chapman University, said the spending likely stems from discrimination they face wearing their natural hair in white-dominated workplaces.
Black women under 45 are more likely to get breast cancer compared to white women and disproportionately die from the disease. Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer mortality among the demographic as of 2019.
Yet on top of the lack of research into cancer-causing chemicals in beauty products, many studies primarily use white participants, according to Teteh.
For instance, Black Americans account for 22% of multiple myeloma, yet a May 2021 analysis found they comprised just 4.5% of participants in scientific trials studying people with that cancer.
“The people who conduct these studies are also not people of color,” said Lindsey S. Treviño, an assistant professor at the City of Hope and researcher with Bench2Community. “You study what you’re interested in, 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’re taking shotgun, but in terms of who is in the driver’s seat, that’s really the community members,” Teteh said.
The team shares up-to-date research with the Southern California community in the form of salon conversations and symposiums, including an upcoming one in September. In the past few years, Bench2Community lobbied in support of a suite of four federal bills that would ban beauty companies from using parabens and phthalates.
Though she is passionate about Bench2Community’s mission, Teteh said community conversations can sometimes be demoralizing for Black women tired of changing their lifestyles to correct racial disparities in medicine.
“If the message that I can get across to other Black women that are reading this article, it would simply just be: ‘I get it. I know you’re tired,'” Teteh said. “It’s shitty that we have to live in a society that does not protect us… But at the same time, if we continue to show up as ourselves and we are comfortable in our skin, I think that’s good enough.”