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Haircare products on sale in Boston’s lower-income neighborhoods with higher proportions of people of color are more likely to contain hazardous ingredients than those sold in richer, whiter neighborhoods. Study author Marissa Chan, a Ph.D. candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, spoke with Harvard Public Health.

Why study this topic?

Work on “retailer redlining”—the discriminatory practice of underserving or not serving certain communities based on the sociodemographic composition of the neighborhood or the customers—has borne out in the context of dollar stores as well as pharmacies. We really hadn’t explored the role of hair products yet.

What did you find?

We looked at whether products contained chemicals of concern, which may include endocrine-disrupting chemicals or natural or manmade substances that can interfere with the body’s hormone system. We found more unsafe hair products for sale in lower-income communities of color, compared to the predominantly white and higher-income reference community.

What would you like to see happen based on the study’s results?

We need to ensure that there are policies that eliminate harmful ingredients from our products, with a specific focus on products used by communities of color. One such [policy] example is the recent proposed FDA rule on banning formaldehyde releasers and formaldehyde in chemical hair relaxers. On the sociopolitical side, policies such as the CROWN Act help prevent hair discrimination in educational and employment spaces, and movements celebrating diverse beauty help work to eliminate harmful beauty standards.

—Maryam Zafar

(Study in Environmental Health Perspectives, September 2023)

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