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No more lead in your eyeliner: New Washington state law bans toxic cosmetics

caption: Nina Trapp washes DaVonna Johnson’s hair during an appointment at Mati’s Salon and Barbershop on Friday, May 24, 2024, along Rainier Avenue South in Seattle.
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Nina Trapp washes DaVonna Johnson’s hair during an appointment at Mati’s Salon and Barbershop on Friday, May 24, 2024, along Rainier Avenue South in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

DaVonna Johnson gets her hair done at a salon in the Rainier Valley.

She’s been straightening her hair since eighth grade. But when she was in her 40s, the products she’d long used started irritating her scalp. Then, a few years ago, her mom was diagnosed with cancer.

“It makes you look at the world very differently,” Johnson said. “That was the point that I really started to question and look at things that are known carcinogens.”

Johnson said she took a hard look at the cleaning supplies she used, her diet — and how she did her hair.

RELATED: Lead or formaldehyde in your makeup? WA lawmakers want to eliminate them

Washington state took a similar hard look recently. A new state law aims to get cosmetics with certain chemicals out of Washington’s stores and salons. Advocates say it’s the strongest law of its kind in the country, though states including California, Minnesota, and New York have similar regulations. Now comes the long process of store owners, hair stylists, and communities figuring out which products they’ll still be able to use and which ones they’ll need to toss.

caption: DaVonna Johnson has her hair colored by Nina Trapp, right, at Mati’s Salon and Barbershop on Friday, May 24, 2024, along Rainier Avenue South in Seattle.
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DaVonna Johnson has her hair colored by Nina Trapp, right, at Mati’s Salon and Barbershop on Friday, May 24, 2024, along Rainier Avenue South in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

If cosmetics contain the chemicals, stores need to get them off the shelves by the end of this year. And businesses like salons have to stop using them by 2026.

Small businesses and people who do hair and makeup will be able to apply for financial assistance to replace the products they use.

Some retailers, including Sephora, Target, Walmart, and Ulta Beauty, have already committed to selling cosmetics free from toxic chemicals, according to Megan Liu, with the organization Toxic-Free Future.

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But some retailers and salons still carry, or use, products that contain formaldehyde-releasing agents or other chemicals banned under the new regulations. It's also possible to buy cosmetics that contain the chemicals — including lead, at thousands of times the legal limit in the U.S. — on websites like Amazon.

The chemicals included in the new regulations are linked to developmental and reproductive problems, certain kinds of cancer, and other health effects. Hair-straightening products, for example, are associated with uterine and breast cancer.

“Some products like hair relaxers and skin-lightening creams are disproportionately marketed to people of color, especially Black women, and they can contain harmful chemicals,” said Rebecca Bohannon, with the Washington State Department of Ecology, which is charged with implementing the new law.

caption: Nina Trapp straightens DaVonna Johnson’s hair during an appointment at Mati’s Salon and Barbershop on Friday, May 24, 2024, along Rainier Avenue South in Seattle.
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Nina Trapp straightens DaVonna Johnson’s hair during an appointment at Mati’s Salon and Barbershop on Friday, May 24, 2024, along Rainier Avenue South in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

The cosmetics regulated under the new law include hair, skin, and nail products — anything from makeup to deodorant to lotion.

“People use a lot of these products every day, usually at least 10 or so products every day by everybody,” said Holly Davies, a toxicologist with the State Department of Health. “A lot of them we’re putting directly on our face. Some of the cosmetics we end up ingesting because we touch our face and then we touch our mouths. We breathe in some of these compounds.”

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But “we really believe that you shouldn’t have to be a toxicologist to find safer products,” said Bohannon, with Ecology. “The goal is to move the responsibility for reducing toxic chemicals to manufacturers rather than to consumers or people that are using the product in their work.”

The agency is working on a list of products allowed under the new law.

caption: DaVonna Johnson has her hair colored by Nina Trapp, right, during an appointment at Mati’s Salon and Barbershop on Friday, May 24, 2024, along Rainier Avenue South in Seattle.
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DaVonna Johnson has her hair colored by Nina Trapp, right, during an appointment at Mati’s Salon and Barbershop on Friday, May 24, 2024, along Rainier Avenue South in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

“Once people are made aware of a product in their life that is potentially hazardous, change is not that hard,” said Aesha Mokashi, who researches lead in traditional eyeliners as a grad student at the University of Washington and an intern at King County’s public health agency.

Mokashi said the Afghan community in King County, her own Indian-American community, and others use traditional eyeliners, including on babies and children. These eyeliners can contain large amounts of lead — sometimes up to 720,000 parts per million, even though the legal limit in the U.S. is 10 parts per million.

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“What we’re worried about with kids is that they’re going to rub their eyes, and then if they put their hands in their mouth, then they’re going to be ingesting lead,” Mokashi said.

Lead exposure in childhood can cause lifelong cognitive and behavioral problems.

When Mokashi and her colleagues found lead in imported traditional eyeliners, they worked with the Afghan community to test possible alternatives.

“One question I’ve gotten before was: ‘Oh, but what if the community doesn’t want to change their practices?’” Mokashi said. “But when we were working with the Afghan community, it was really clear that the health of their families was more important and they were willing to change to safer alternatives.”

caption: DaVonna Johnson has her hair colored by Nina Trapp during an appointment at Mati’s Salon and Barbershop on Friday, May 24, 2024, along Rainier Avenue South in Seattle.
Enlarge Icon
DaVonna Johnson has her hair colored by Nina Trapp during an appointment at Mati’s Salon and Barbershop on Friday, May 24, 2024, along Rainier Avenue South in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Back in the Rainier Valley, DaVonna Johnson said she was nervous to stop chemically relaxing her hair.

“I have really thick hair — a lot of it,” she explained.

RELATED: REI to stop selling clothes, cookware with 'forever chemicals'

Johnson wondered if she’d be able to keep her hair looking tidy in Seattle’s humid air or after working out or taking a shower, and she didn’t want her appearance to draw attention at work.

“I work in an industry where there’s not a lot of women, definitely not a lot of women of color,” Johnson said. “And so, I sort of have felt like, ‘That’s probably just not another thing that I need to be working against.’”

caption: Nina Trapp washes DaVonna Johnson’s hair during an appointment at Mati’s Salon and Barbershop on Friday, May 24, 2024, along Rainier Avenue South in Seattle.
Enlarge Icon
Nina Trapp washes DaVonna Johnson’s hair during an appointment at Mati’s Salon and Barbershop on Friday, May 24, 2024, along Rainier Avenue South in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

But after her mom’s cancer diagnosis, Johnson decided to make the switch. She called up a hair stylist, Nina Trapp, who said she could work with her to skip the chemicals and flat-iron her hair instead.

Johnson still goes to the hair salon every two weeks. But she walks out with her hair flat-ironed instead of chemically straightened — worry-free.

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