Black Women Say Products for Black Hair Are Dangerously Toxic

Black Women Say Products for Black Hair Are Dangerously Toxic

My mother was a teenager in the late ’70s when big poofy hair (see Donna Summer and Tina Turner circa 1978) was all the rage. And like many teens, she wanted to fit in, so she asked her mom: “Can I get a perm?” My grandmother bought an at-home relaxer—she was too broke to take my mom to the salon. She sat my mother down in the kitchen and grabbed a white towel, a hot comb, and some plastic gloves. Then, she opened the perm box and got to work.

The result of this cycle was always the same: silky hair blowing in the wind as if she was Cinderella and a relaxer was her fairy godmother. Too bad this miracle didn’t stop her constant itchiness from the scalp scabs or sharp stings of pains when she accidentally touched her chemical burn—which were common after her at-home perm experiences. It didn’t erase the smell of chemical fumes either—an awful scent that’s something between burnt hair and bleach— in her mother’s kitchen-turned-salon, but it did allow her to feel beautiful, so to her, it was worth it.

This experience was the norm for many Black girls growing up in the United States. Honestly, it still is. Perming may have been more popular in the ’80s when my mom was a pre-teen, but even thirtysomething years later, young Black girls almost the same age of my mother are continuing the tradition. Smelling the lye in the relaxer, also known as a perm for Black hair, feeling the products burn their scalp as they sat still and quiet in the salon chair, their faces etched with discomfort; praying that after the relaxer was applied, the hair loss wouldn’t be too bad. A few inches gone would be okay, but bald spots? They’d never live down the teasing, the taunts from some of the white kids (and sometimes your own people too) that “Black girls like you are always bald-headed.” It was a gamble. Still, the addiction to “creamy crack” (an African American slang for relaxers) flowed from grandmother to mother to daughter as they coaxed their hair to be straight, manageable, and what they had been taught to believe was the most beautiful. Toxic or not, it was the best beauty product a Black woman had.

Myesha Bynum, the owner of MJB Holistic Hair Care in Bowie, Maryland, was a part of this ritual. Several decades ago, when she was 11 years old, she got her first relaxer. It was a few days before her mother’s wedding, and to make Bynum’s hair more “presentable,” her mother took her to the salon and asked for a kiddie relaxer (That rectangular box featuring young, happy Black girl smiling with straight, silky hair—as if the creamy crack was solution to the “problem” that is textured hair). Kiddie relaxers are marketed as being safer and more sensitive to children’s scalp. When Bynum was 11, though, her hair fell out in clumps less than 24 hours after the application.

Safety is an illusion when it comes to Black hair, a lesson Bynum would learn almost two decades later. Like many Black women, Bynum believed relaxers were safe because they’re sold in stores and anything sold in stores is “safe,” right? And it’s more than just relaxers to consider: Black women use five or more hair products at home, according to the consumer research agency Mintel, so their rate of exposure is inflated. The bald spots, hair loss, and excruciating burning pains during application were only “one-offs” where the stylist wasn’t applying it properly or following the instructions. It never crossed Bynum’s mind that the relaxer itself could be dangerous until she experienced dramatic hair loss for the second time after giving birth to her first child. That same year, her doctor found two fibroids on her uterus.

“I do have two fibroids that the doctor found on my uterus,” she says. Though her doctor hasn’t confirmed the connection, she says that she’s read research studies that link the use of relaxers to potential reproductive issues.

“Thankfully, I have not suffered from strenuous health issues, but I do believe that my fibroids are a connection to the chemicals [in the relaxers].”

Fibroids are a common issue for most women, no matter their racial identity. Almost two-thirds of women will develop uterine fibroids by age 50, according to the University of Michigan Health Lab. But there is a racial disparity in diagnoses—nearly a quarter of young Black women, ages 18 to 30, will develop uterine fibroids, compared with just 6% for white women. By age 50, this number increases to 80%, versus 70% percent of white women. Diagnosis is only one-half of the issue—Black women are also two to three times more likely to suffer from recurring fibroids or complications.

Some researchers identify a Vitamin D deficiency or genetic element as possible causes, but others suggest another possible culprit: chemical hair relaxers.

Researchers know that Black women use chemical hair relaxers the most—a 20-year study by Boston University’s Black Women’s Health found that about 95% of the 52,000 Black women surveyed used or currently use hair relaxers. The same study, which was supported by the NIH, found no links between overall hair relaxer use and the risk of breast cancer and found that non-lye hair relaxers were not associated with increased breast cancer risk, but importantly, it did find links between heavy users of lye-based hair relaxers and breast cancer. (Black women have the highest breast cancer mortality rate—31%, according to Breast Cancer Prevention Partners.)

A 2022 study by the National Institutes of Health reported that frequent users of chemical hair straightening products (those who’d used the products more than four times in the previous year) were more than twice as likely as those who never used them to develop uterine cancer. 60% of the study participants who disclosed they used relaxers were Black women.

So, does this mean frequent use of hair relaxers and other chemical hair-straightening products cause cancer and fibroids? Not necessarily. The research behind this phenomenon is complicated. For one, there isn’t an established connection between relaxers and breast cancer, but what we do know is that, according to recent research, Black haircare products may contain “hormonally active ingredients” such as endocrine disrupting chemicals—more on that shortly.

Black Hair & Chemical Dictionary

  • Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs): Chemicals found in personal-care products, the environment, food sources, and manufactured products that disrupt the hormonal system by either mimicking hormones or blocking the body’s natural hormones from doing their job. EDCs may have adverse health impacts on one’s body including links to altering sperm quality, early puberty, neurological and physical disorders, and certain cancers. Some common EDCs are phthalates, parabens, BPA, and lead.
  • Carcinogens: A substance that can cause cancer. Carcinogens can be both natural (UV light and asbestos) or man-made (formaldehyde and wood dust).
  • Lye Relaxers: a chemical lotion or cream that breaks down the hair’s natural bonds by using sodium hydroxide, a compound commonly used to unclog drains.
  • No Lye relaxers: a chemical lotion or cream that breaks down the hair’s natural bonds by using calcium hydroxide, an odorless white powder used to treat sewage and in mortar, which is used for construction. Often marketed as a safer alternative to lye relaxers.

Long before researchers started caring about Black women, Black women knew something was wrong with the creamy crack. Robin Groover, healthy hair expert and owner of Too Groovy Salon in Atlanta, Georgia, remembers seeing her great-grandmother’s long silver braids reach the middle of her back. But somewhere down the line, the women in her family, including herself, began experiencing hair loss. “I got a relaxer at the age of eight—I begged for it,” she says. “My hair started in the middle of my back. By the time I got to high school, I had short hair.”

Hair chemistry was the foundation of cosmetology school, as Groover would soon learn. Learning how to handle chemicals, knowing which ingredient was safe to mix with another, and understanding the chemical composition of hair bonds. Never once questioning if the chemical itself was safe to use. Perhaps this is why Groover never made the connection between relaxers and hair loss until she graduated from hair school in 1988.

After she received her cosmetology degree and entered the industry, she began asking questions: Why are so many Black women suffering from tremendous hair loss? If we have to wear gloves on our hands to handle these products, why would we put them on somebody’s scalp? If hair is unique as a fingerprint, why are we using the same perm buckets on every client?

Curiosity led her to research the science of haircare where she stumbled upon a science of haircare seminar in 1993. It was produced by a personal care manufacturer that designs and produces Black hair products including relaxers. She discovered five relaxer formulas, which she says helped maintain the curl patterns of her clients due to the variation of the formulas. She knew that hair is as unique as a fingerprint.

Groover started working in the research and development field in 1997. She still worked part-time as a hairstylist, but now she had an inside look into the formulas of relaxers and discovered that one of the ingredients in many no-lye relaxers, a popular form of relaxer commonly promoted as a safer alternative to lye relaxers, was calcium hydroxide. “The same chemical, along with potassium thioglycolate, is an active ingredient in Nair, which is a hair remover,” she says. “Well, duh. No wonder everybody’s losing their hair. It’s a hair remover. The loss of a protein bond is not a personal decision. It takes away half of the strand’s strength.”

This discovery didn’t stop Groover from texturizing her clients (she eventually ceased all relaxer services in 1998). But it did motivate Groover to find alternative ways to achieve manageable Black hair without using chemicals. Thanks to development of haircare technology in the late ’90s, Groover pioneered the silk press method, using ceramic flat irons and ionic blow dryers, which achieved better results than a relaxer without the health risks. With these tools, obtaining silky straight manageable hair was never easier (or safer).

Of course, there were clients who rejected these tools and asked for perm services. She told them, “Hair loss is inevitable according to the scientific formulation. The density will decrease gradually with the safest application because of protein and moisture loss.” Most refused to listen, arguing it was age, stress, or application mistakes as reasons for their hair loss. Regardless, if her clients wanted to believe her or not, Groover had observed that the client with severe migraines only found relief after she stopped perming her hair. Or that the hair growth of another client was only possible once she went natural.

Some Black women continue holding onto the “beauty is pain” mindset, but Groover knows haircare isn’t supposed to be like this—where she suspects that Black women could suffer from fibroids, alopecia, hair loss, and other physical effects from getting relaxers. But what Groover didn’t know was how these hair products were sold, despite the countless personal narratives that suggest to her that there may be danger in these chemicals. She believes that there is a lack of research, care, and concern for women of color and curly hair. Groover is dedicated to scientific innovation in healthy haircare. She is the chief hair officer of the beauty technology company Myavana, which developed a patent-pending software system that identifies your true hair ID based on your unique texture, type, and condition.

The Food Drug Administration has little to no responsibility to regulate cosmetics—but that doesn’t mean the FDA is responsible for this lack of regulation. There has been no conclusive research that determines cause and effect between the chemicals in these Black haircare products including relaxers and damage to health, and the hair product companies are following established regulation. So, just who exactly is the guilty party in this story? It’s complicated.

What’s up with the FDA?

In 1938, Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), which provides the FDA the authority to regulate drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, and food. Though the FFDCA has been amended numerous times to include additional oversight over drugs, medical devices, and food, cosmetics, which includes hair products, have remained largely unchanged, says Marie Boyd, a University of South Carolina associate professor of law whose research primarily focuses on the FDA.

The FDA regulates cosmetics through post-market enforcement, i.e. the FDA does not approve cosmetics or their ingredients before they are sold on the market. The only exception to this rule is color additives. For cosmetics, the FDA does not have the authority under the FFDCA to order a recall but can request that a company recall a product voluntarily. The FFDCA prohibits the adulteration and misbranding of cosmetics,” Boyd says. “Adulteration provisions deal with issues of safety and sanitation; the misbranding provisions deal with issues around labeling—for example, if a product has false or misleading labeling.” Essentially, cosmetic manufacturers do not have to register their establishments with the FDA (though the FDA does encourage them to voluntarily register online), and any cosmetic marketed as “for professional use only” (what you’d find used in a hair salon) does not need to have an ingredient label.

Ultimately, the agency may not know who’s manufacturing cosmetics, how many manufacturers are making cosmetics, or what ingredients are in cosmetics, Boyd says. This lack of oversight also means that the FDA does not require safety tests for cosmetics and instead recommends manufacturers to commit safety tests at their discretion, according to the agency’s website. Results from said tests are also not required to be shared with the FDA.

Some consumers have brought lawsuits concerning these cosmetics by trying to prove a product is dangerous or defective. In 2019, a Pennsylvania woman sued a large beauty company after she alleged extreme hair loss from using their at-home no-lye relaxer. The federal court ruled in the company’s favor, in part because the plaintiff did not follow the product’s instructions—she didn’t complete a strand test as instructed on the product label.

The FDA cannot do anything (and I mean anything) without approval from Congress. Actually, no governmental agency can act without Congress’ consent. “In the United States, federal laws are enacted by Congress, who authorizes certain government agencies, such as the FDA, to create regulations,” says Linda Katz, M.D., director of the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. A change in the FDA’s legal authority over cosmetics would require Congress to change the law.”

Your next question: why hasn’t Congress changed the law? A legislative package requiring safer beauty products and more FDA regulation has been introduced to Congress, but it can take months, maybe a few years, before the bill becomes official.

So, as we’re waiting on Congress to authorize more FDA-regulation over cosmetics, should Black women simply avoid chemical relaxers?

Sorry, but it’s not just relaxers.

I’ve never had a relaxer or perm. Not because I didn’t want one, but because my mother, scared from her experience with chemical hair products, refused to repeat this cycle with her children. Six-year-old me couldn’t grasp this perspective—I only wanted to look like the other Black girls in school and on television, safety be damned.

In hindsight, I’m grateful to my mother for sticking to her decision. But, again, safety is an illusion when it comes to all Black haircare. Because it’s not just the chemical relaxers or hair dyes that may be dangerous, but depending on their ingredients, the co-conditioners, curly creams, and gels may not be safe either.

You walk into your average drugstore and head to the “ethnic” hair section You see an array of brands. You pick up a moisturizer or a curly cream with the words “coconut scented” or “aloe vera-scented” written on the label. Some products don’t have descriptions, their fragrance is written in their name: hibiscus, coconut, or blueberry.

All of these creams and lotions are relatively different except each has one common denominator: fragrance.

On the back of a leave-in conditioner or curly cream that is not fragrance-free, there are typically 15 or so ingredients on the label. Between the chemical terminology one could barely pronounce and water, there lies the word: fragrance (also known as parfum). What is fragrance? The fragrance formulations that hide under the word “fragrance” or “parfum” on product labels can be made up of anywhere between a dozen to hundreds of individual chemicals, some of which have been linked to harm to human health or the environment, says Janet Nudelman, the senior director of program and policy, at Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP), a national science-advocacy organization dedicated to eliminating toxic chemicals and other environmental exposures that lead to breast cancer.

“Black women buy $7.5 billion worth of beauty products every year; they spend nine times more on ethnic hair products than any other demographic,” she says. “And the majority of the products that they buy in the U.S. smell good, because they contain fragrance ingredients. By law, the ingredients in a fragrance formulation don’t have to appear on a product label. They’re hidden from the public because they’re protected as trade secrets.”

Not all fragrance ingredients are toxic, but because appropriate federal regulations don’t exist yet, trade secret protection creates a buyer beware situation for consumers because they may not have a way of knowing if unsafe ingredients are lurking in the beauty and personal care products that they use every day. Fragrance ingredient disclosure is a consumer right to know issue. Without it, ingredients linked to cancer, birth defects, endocrine disruption, respiratory and other negative health impacts could be lurking in products that people slather on their bodies and their babies without their knowledge or consent.

A 2018 report by the BCPP tested 100 personal-care products and the chemicals found in their fragrances. The results were shocking. “In total, 99 of the 338 fragrance chemicals we detected in personal-care products have health concerns,” the report stated. “This means that more than 1 in 4 fragrance chemicals are linked to at least one chronic health effect.”

Again, considering Black women use five or more hair products at home, their rate of exposure is inflated. And this is compounded for Black hair stylists like Katrina Randolph who apply products multiple times per day for clients.

Randolph, the owner of Tré Shadez Hair Studio, in Capitol Heights, Maryland offers services from chemical relaxers to moisture treatments, hair dyes, and precision cuts. She remembers going to cosmetology school more than 30 years ago, learning how to cut, color, and relax. “The instructors told us to use gloves, touched on the subject of chemical exposure, but not in-depth,” she says. “Not how it could possibly affect you over time. Perhaps the long-term effects of haircare products were not well known at the time especially in the African American haircare industry.” As a child she remembers mothers would perm their daughters’ hair in the home long before VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) were a household name.

In a sense, Black hair stylists were “guinea pigs”—Randolph’s words—who learned how to “safely” handle products on their own. to the best of their ability with the limited information available at that time. The aerosol sprays are overpowering? Turn on a fan. Your hands itch from the chemicals? Put on a new set of gloves. It wasn’t until Randolph began researching professional products, understanding the importance of ventilation systems, and wearing masks that she and her employers began to feel safe. But like Bynum, the damage was already done—her daughter, a hairstylist, who already had mild asthma as a child currently suffers from bronchitis partly due to long exposure to sprays and chemicals. She reduced time servicing clients in the salon and took on a new career as a real estate agent to offset the reduction in revenue.

Meanwhile, Katrina has become a health awareness advocate and aspires to inform more stylist and salon owners on the importance of educating themselves on the potential effects from some of the products currently used in salons as well as introduce more eco-friendly alternatives. The “greening” of the salon atmosphere is a lifelong mission for Katrina and Tre Shadez Hair Studio.

The solution is not as simple as it seems.

I approached the FDA to ask for answers about extending regulations to protect consumers from toxic personal care products, and it’s clear this remains outside their scope, as they have no comment (their words) on whether they do or do not support increasing regulations over cosmetics.

So if the FDA can’t protect consumers (because of their own legal jurisdiction) nor comment if they are supportive of increasing additional surveillance of cosmetics, who’s looking out for the middle man?

The sad truth is that no one is really protecting you.

So, here’s an easy-to-follow guide on how you can advocate for yourself:

Be a smart shopper

Start using beauty consumer guides like Environmental Working Group Skin Deep or Think Dirty, which identifies the hazards of personal care products. Download the Chrome extension or mobile app Clearya—it will notify you of any beauty products in your cart that may be hazardous or toxic.

Support the Safer Beauty Bill Package

In 2021, four bills were introduced to Congress that advocated for increased federal oversight of cosmetics. The proposed regulation would include: banning 11 of the most toxic chemicals, putting protections in place for women of color and salon workers, eliminating the fragrance non-disclosure, and ensuring supply chain transparency. You can support the package by clicking on BCPP’s website and filling out their contact information form, which will find your congressional representative (from the address you entered) and populate a standard letter urging your representative to support the bill. You can tweak the letter and add a personal anecdote if you wish, or you can send the standardized letter with the click of a button. A simple three-step process that makes a difference.

Make beauty choices with caution

Black women can change the anti-Black society we live in, says Janette Robinson Flint, the executive director of Black Women for Wellness, a non-profit grassroots organization dedicated to enhancing the health and well-being of Black women and girls. Our hair is political and personable; it “impacts our financial, economic, education, mental, our joy, our love,” she says. “Which all has an influence on our health and well-being.”

Sometimes, Black women will have to “put the chemicals on because we want to be happy, we want the job, we want the education, we want the relationships,” Flint says. “If that means that we have to straighten our hair and put on red lipstick and try to fit into that box, then that’s what we do.”

Though no cause-and-effect relationship has been conclusively established, just be aware of the potential consequences—more exposure may lead to an increased risk of asthma, breast cancer, fibroids. If you have to straighten your hair for your job, use the least toxic product. Try to limit your product maintenance—using fewer products decreases this chemical accumulation.

To Black women, hair isn’t a clump of cells. Hair is expression, culture, vulnerability, intimacy, and community. A connection to our ancestors and the motherland we were taken from. A form of protest in this egregious anti-Black world. A reminder of our duality of gentleness and resilience.

Hair is the most intimate and vulnerable part of Black women. It is why we are policed by it; why we are subjugated by the force of Eurocentric beauty standards; why corporations have exploited this intimate connection for they know (as I do too) that Black women will do anything for our hair.

Black women, we are the highest consumers of toxic beauty products. I am worried about us and for us—and you should be too.

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