Embracing Beauty Inside Out: My Journey to Clean Beauty

A young Leslie Martinez, just down the block from WE ACT’s Harlem headquarters, on Halloween 2003.

As I sat in the beauty salon chair, flinching from the sensation of the heat over my edges, I repeated to myself, “beauty is pain and pain is beauty.” That was the affirmation of an 11-year old girl who believed that the process of altering herself to fit society’s Eurocentric standard of beauty was worth the pain. So, I hardened my head, closed my eyes, and continued to dilute myself in the name of beauty.

I sat through harsh chemicals and heating tools on the quest to encompass a beauty standard that never intended to include the diversity of the Black and Brown girl. These tools not only manipulated the texture of my hair, but my perception of myself and my roots as well. As a young girl, I believed that that experience was not only synonymous with beauty but also with culture. It was normalized. When something becomes so ingrained in your everyday life, it is almost impossible to analyze its impact. It did not matter what I applied on my hair as long as I got the results I wanted. How could something be harmful if it makes you feel beautiful?

For years, I never questioned this. It was not until I entered college that my experiences began exposing me to new realities. Becoming a vegetarian allowed me to become more conscientious of what I consumed. However, it was not until later on that I understood that my health is affected not only by what I ingest but also by my environment and what I apply on my skin. My relationship with my hair began to change when I studied abroad in India. With access to only water and conditioner, I spent six weeks away from the appliances and products I had depended on to manage the texture of my hair. It was in this struggle that I saw the years of damage that chemicals and heating appliances had done. This experience forced me to redefine my understanding of kinks and curls, along with my definition of beauty.

Leslie Martinez in the Kingdom of eSwanti.

I left India empowered to embrace my natural hair, but still unsure on how to do so. I assumed if products were labeled “natural” and “organic,” they were safer than those without them. So, I spent the next two years buying these products when, in reality, they were deceiving me. The terms “organic” and “natural” are not legally defined or regulated. Companies can put forth products with toxic ingredients and label them as “organic” and “natural” with no repercussions. And I learned that it wasn’t just hair products that could be mislabeled, but all beauty products.

My journey began with hair and ultimately led me to discover that I was exposing myself to several harmful products in many different ways. According to the Environmental Working Group, women use an average of 12 products a day, containing 168 different chemicals. One day, I began reading the labels on my makeup, deodorant, perfumes, and lotions, cross-referencing them with the list of harmful ingredients (learn more, aprende más), and found at least two in all of my products. They contained parabens, phthalates, and estrogenic chemicals, known to cause disruptions in hormones. I felt fooled, frustrated, and concerned. For years, I gave my money to companies who were intentionally misleading me with false labeling and shelving despite knowing their potential impact on my health.

I thought that by knowing what products to avoid, transitioning towards clean beauty would be easier. However, things only became harder after I graduated from college and returned home to Harlem. It was challenging for me to find safe beauty products for my hair texture in my community. I often had to compromise between clean products that were ineffective and toxic products that were.

When I became a member of WE ACT for Environmental Justice (WE ACT), I began to understand the systematic injustice of the beauty industry and its impact on my experiences. During a Beauty Inside Out panel discussion for WE ACT’s Uptown Chats series, I learned how cosmetics marketed to women, and particularly women of color, contain some of the most toxic chemicals used by the beauty industry. This exposure not only affects the women who use these products but also the unborn children of pregnant women as well as workers in the beauty industry, who are predominantly women of color and immigrant women.

I noticed this issue is greater than individual consumerism because there are systems in place that fail to protect WOC and strategically market their toxic products to us. From birth, skin lightening, and the disassociation with kinky hair have become so embedded in our culture. Companies actively exploit this while profiting at the expense of the health of WOC.

When WE ACT launched the Beauty Inside Out campaign to highlight cosmetics marketed to WOC that perpetuate a racially biased standard of beauty, such as skin lightening creams, I felt compelled to join. My experience learning to implement clean beauty was a long and challenging one. I wanted to ease the journey for women in my community by partnering with an organization whose priority is our health.

As part of WE ACT’s Beauty Inside Out campaign, I signed on as a Survey Administration Coordinator to assist with conducting in-person surveys of women of color in northern Manhattan. The survey assesses the use of and attitudes toward hair and skin-lightening products. It also informs my community in Northern Manhattan about the health hazards we face and how to reduce our exposure to harmful chemicals.

I continue to support the Beauty Inside Out campaign in the creation of educational materials, trainings, and community workshops to better understand this topic and find safer alternatives. Working with women in my community to become resources for all of Northern Manhattan is empowering. We all relate to the challenges of clean beauty as the racially biased standard of beauty has seeped into our culture since childhood.

This project is an opportunity to support young black and brown girls who, like the adults in our lives, were unaware of the harmful practices we were subjecting ourselves and our children to. WE ACT aims to tackle the issue from all angles. By partnering with Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, and the Mind the Store campaign, they challenge large retailers to eliminate toxic chemicals in products and packaging. This campaign also develops comprehensive safer chemical policies to protect families, communities, and workers. With growing knowledge about product safety, WE ACT demands that our government prioritize the health of its citizens by passing laws to ensure the enforcement of the safe manufacturing of all products.

Through raising awareness, changing policy, and ultimately making these products safer, these efforts will be pivotal in the lives of so many people, primarily black and brown women and communities of lower-income. The Beauty Inside Out campaign stands firmly against the environmental injustice of the beauty industry. This campaign is an opportunity to tell companies and policymakers that the health of black and brown women matter.


Leslie Martinez is an intern at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, working with our Environmental Health team. She is earning her Masters in International Crime and Justice at John Jay College and hopes to work as an investigative analyst to prevent human trafficking.


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