Feb 22

Meet our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health: Nourbese Flint, MA

Nourbese Flint, MA serves as the Policy Director and manager of reproductive justice programs at Black Women for Wellness (BWW). There, she directs reproductive and environmental health policy, organizes community advocacy, and manages reproductive and sexual health programming as well as civic engagement.

With her work in the policy realm and the reproductive justice world, she knows how important an intersectional approach to a topic can be.

“In order for us to really make a difference in where we live, work and play, and for us to be able to do that healthier, we have to take an intersectional approach to solving injustice. That means we are including communities that are most impacted by the issues in our conversations about how we solve the problems that plague us,” Ms. Flint says.

One of the problems that is plaguing black women and other people of color relates to chemicals in personal care products, specifically hair care and make-up.

“We started looking at some of the links between the chemicals that are in products, and we decided that we wanted to do a deeper dive. The hair care industry is important in black communities. Barbershops and hair salons are a place where information is exchanged and have been the economic backbone to our communities for decades. Given the sheer mass of how much money is spent by black women on beauty products and particularly hair products, we wanted to dig in to see if what we are spending our money on is safe... are our beauty products causing some of the health inequities that we see in our community,” Ms. Flint explained.

Many of these ideas of what is accepted is based on what is commonly portrayed through the media and the images we all come across on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

“Beauty is a multilayered issue. It’s not only what we see in the media, but what is accepted as what is pretty, what is beautiful, and what is feminine. All of this can have a direct impact on people’s ability to access, whether it’s a job or a partner or even into certain spaces. ” Ms. Flint explains. “Media has a tendency of reinforcing Eurocentric ideas of beauty where folks who are skinnier, have lighter skin and straight hair are seen as more “beautiful”. So, if you are a women of color who is darker or thicker or doesn’t fit into the mainstream ideas of beauty, there is more pressure for you to do more to your body or to your hair, or to your skin complexion in order to get closer to these ideas of what mainstream society keeps reinforcing as what is beautiful,” Ms. Flint shares.

Because of all of these streamlined ideals of beauty, beauty products are marketed more heavily towards women of color. It has been shown through various research projects that these products can contain harmful chemicals that can have health effects ranging from skin irritation to early puberty to various forms of cancer.

In an effort to combat that, “we have been working with beauty stylists and also consumers around hair and beauty care products, and really looking at the chemicals in the products,” Ms. Flint says of work she is doing at BWW.

Because of what BWW is finding through this work, she is also using her background in policy to push for change.

A couple of the policy initiative she is work on include: “funding the safer cosmetics program so they [salon workers and consumers] have the tools to really go after some of the worst folks who are putting chemicals in our products and not telling us. Another policy initiative is a follow up to the research that we had been doing looking at beauty stylists and their products. Professional products don’t have ingredient disclosures. We as consumers can go to a store and flip around a shampoo bottle and see what’s in it, professional cosmetic folks can’t when they are buying professional grade products,” Ms. Flint says.

This is a problem. Professionals are using these products many times a day, and they can’t easily look to see what they are being exposed too. Ms. Flint and BWW are hoping to see that change. In the meantime, as a consumer, there are options you can do at the individual level that will have an impact.

“I tell folks to do what they can. They may not be able [to do everything], but if you can switch your shampoo out to one that has less EDCs in it, or other chemicals, then try to make those switches,” Ms. Flint suggests. “Maybe change your shampoo and your dishwashing soap, but if you really love your detangler, [keep that],” Ms. Flint says.

She also suggests taking context into consideration.

“Be vigilant of what you use compared what you are using with children. Most women are already very vigilant about what they are using on their children. You can, for example, use the detangler that you love but think about using a less toxic detangler for the babies,” Ms. Flint suggests. 

She also warns about some products being misleading.

“Be very, very vigilant about green washing because that is something that has been popping up more and more. Products that are saying they are healthier, less toxic, but they are not. Folks are like ‘oh, this is SLS free, vegan or something else that makes it seem like it’s healthier, but it can be just as chock full of chemicals as other products. So, when possible, turn around those products and look what’s in it,” Ms. Flint says.

Going further than just looking at the products you use on yourself and at home with your families, you can also push for variety in advertising.

“We really just need to force different ideas of beauty into the mainstream. So, if folks can keep demanding a range of representation in our movies, film, television shows and comic books to even Instagram models, we can expand the representation of beauty. At an individual level people can get together with some friends and start pushing social media images that diversify beauty through their own accounts,” Ms. Flint shares.

Thorough all of this work and advocacy, Ms. Flint has a rather simple wish for the future.

“I hope that we can have more products in stores that won’t kill us. That’s the number one. … Second is to continue the efforts of decolonizing the ideas of beauty standards and expand what the representation of beauty,” Ms. Flint says.

With all of this great information, we have put together a list of Ms. Flint’s suggestions for making a change and choosing safer products.

  1. Take your time and start by swapping out just a few products.
  2. Don’t blindly trust the labels, turn them over and look at what chemicals are listed. BWW has put together a list of chemicals to avoid and why that you can reference. You can keep a screenshot of this on your phone.
  3. Push for a more diverse representation of models, actors, and images. Repost ones you find inclusive or inspiring to help spread the message. 

We wanted to find the best young researchers and advocates who might change the future of environmental health. So, we asked a panel of luminaries in environmental health to nominate rising stars who are doing pioneering work. After a rigorous selection process, we invited 20 of these nominees to be our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health.

In January, we held our fifth webinar in the series. In addition to these presentations, we got to sit down and learn a little bit more about the researchers. While we did talk about their research, we also learned how they first got interested in the field and what this work means to them, plus a few tips for staying healthy.

Tags: pioneers under 40Chemical Environment