- Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer, but are often overlooked in trials studying the disease.
- A team of community seekers – plus a survivor, hairdresser, etc. – works to prevent these deaths.
- The research initiative studies toxic chemicals in beauty products marketed to black women.
Tiah Tomlin-Harris had breast cancer at 38, with no family history of the disease.
Tomlin-Harris, who has a master’s degree in chemistry and has worked in the pharmaceutical industry, suspected her lifestyle could have contributed to the development of cancer.
Right after being diagnosed, 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 going into remission. She mentioned that she had read about chemicals in beauty products linked to cancer risk.
The social worker declined to commit, Tomlin-Harris said. She told Tomlin-Harris to keep using the products she wants because there’s nothing she can do — that lifestyle changes aren’t working.
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 may 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 about toxins in beauty products than she does. The team is conducting research on how chemicals in beauty products can uniquely impact black women and sharing new information as it becomes available.
“There are beauty supply stores all over our community, on every corner,” Tomlin-Harris told Insider. “Beauty stores contain harmful chemicals. So how do we get this message across to the community?”
Beauty products can pose a unique risk for black women
Increasingly, researchers are starting to sound the alarm that beauty products could be a big factor in increasing rates of cancer — particularly breast cancer — among young black women. More recently, City of Hope researchers found that parabens uniquely increased the growth of breast cancer cells in black women compared to white women.
According to Nielsen data, black women spend more than other demographics on beauty and hair products, 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 expense likely stemmed from the discrimination they face for wearing their natural hair in predominantly white workplaces.
Black women under 45 are more likely to get breast cancer than white women and die disproportionately from the disease. Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among the population in 2019.
Yet, in addition to the lack of research on cancer-causing chemicals in beauty products, many studies primarily use white participants, according to Teteh.
For example, black Americans make up 22% of multiple myeloma cases, but a May 2021 analysis found they made up only 4.5% of participants in scientific trials studying people with this cancer.
“The people doing these studies aren’t people of color either,” said Lindsey S. Treviño, assistant professor at the City of Hope and researcher at Bench2Community. “You study what interests you or what interests you in the laboratory.”
Bench2Community Puts Southern California’s Black Community at the Forefront of Breast Cancer Research, Education and Advocacy
Teteh and Tomlin-Harris are part of the Bench2Community team of eight researchers and community advisors. The team also includes board-certified cosmetologist Tonya Fairley and D. Bing Turner, a Southern California-based public health advocate.
“As scientists, we take shotguns, but when it comes to who’s in charge, it’s really the community members,” Teteh said.
The team shares up-to-date research with the Southern California community in the form of living room conversations and symposia, including one coming in September. Over the past few years, Bench2Community has lobbied for a series of four federal bills banning beauty companies from using parabens and phthalates.
While 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 I can get across to other black women reading this would be just, ‘I get it. I know you’re tired,'” Teteh said. “It’s shit that we have to live in a society that doesn’t protect us… But at the same time, if we continue to show ourselves and feel good about ourselves, I think that’s enough.