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Black women’s hair products can often be harmful to health


Be watchful of how you style your ‘do’

Black hair has been a deeply-rooted and sensitive topic of discussion for many centuries. Dating back as far as slavery, Black hair was expected to be managed with head wraps and or tools that would alter the appearance of the “wooly,” “nappy” and or strikingly different hair texture than that of their White counterparts.

New research has determined that many hair products used by Black women can be harmful to their health. Many of these products contain a variety of chemicals that have been linked to asthma, hormone disruptions and even cancer. A study published this year in Environmental Research found that eight in 10 of the products reviewed contained parabens and phthalates, which are known endocrine disruptors. These substances disturb the body’s hormone balance. The study found that regular exposure to phthalates can cause early puberty and preterm births. Also, researchers detected nonylphenol, a compound associated with obesity and a higher risk of breast cancer in 30% of the hair treatments studied.

The study also reported that several chemicals including benzophenone, diethanolamine and nonylphenol–all banned in the European Union–violate California’s Proposition 65 list of harmful chemicals. Chemicals in hair cosmetics can be absorbed by the body via the skin or inhalation. The researchers said regular use of hair products containing the above-mentioned substances could compound health problems among Black women.

Incorrect labeling is a major factor in these findings. Some substances were not mentioned on the packaging, whereas others were referred to by vague terms such as “fragrances.” American companies are required to list any intentionally added chemicals on product packaging.

Much of the controversy can be traced back to systemic racism, oppression, and discrimination of Black women based on physical appearance. This is true in terms of societal expectations and the daily task of trying to maintain and or style the unique hair that Black women nataurally don. These factors have led many Black women to use straightening products such as relaxers and/or permanents. 

Black hair appearance is especially important in terms of treatment as it relates to slavery, segregation, and even now when searching for employment. New research and studies are demonstrating that certain cosmetic products and chemicals used in relaxers are associated with and may pose dangerous outcomes, such as links to uterine cancer, reproductive issues, obesity, to name a few.  

The pursuit of  European (i.e. White) standards of beauty has resulted in Black women continuously pursuing a hair appearance that mirrored that of their White counterparts. After all, conforming to White physical standards of beauty meant attempting to conform to White hair appearance and texture. The way to achieve this look was with permanents, relaxers, and chemical straighteners that are now being researched, studied, and examined in more depth as to equip Black women with knowledge when selecting safe hair products. 

White hair (or “good hair”)  was typically described as having sleek tresses, pompadours, and smooth waves, whereas Black women typically have thick, thin, kinky, coiled, curly, wavy patterns of hair. Black hair is quite diverse and unique, presenting all types of challenges in terms of style and management. Natural hair styling for many Black women was unheard of during the height of relaxers and perms. Natural hair texture within the Black community was once greatly underrepresented until the mid-1960s when more persons adopted the Afro or “natural” hair style.

Beginning in the 1880s, pressing combs became a Black household staple. They were heated over a flame and with grease applied to the hair which would help straighten the hair. In the 1900s, Madame C.J. Walker patented a line of Black hair products designed to characterize the press-and-curl styling process. In 1909, Garrett Augustus Morgan discovered how to create a hair relaxer for Black hair. He also owned a company that specialized in creating the first chemical hair relaxer available to the general public.

In 1954 Morgan created a permanent straightener for Black men, later the product was released for women as well. Men and women alike were perming their hair and creating a cultural trend. During the 1960s Diana Ross became a cultural icon and mogul for trendy hairstyles, relaxers, and wigs were used to emulate Ross' look. Soon, at-home permanent and relaxer kits were available and although expensive they were practical for difficult-to-manage hair and a convenient option for Black women. 

Los Angeles resident, Marion Scott, 93, and former cosmetologist recalls the different processes and styles dating back to her applying, receiving, and giving permanents to her clients, self and child.

“They were a godsend to the Black woman, with naturally kinky or super curly hair,” Scott said. “From slavery, we were taught the more that we could look Caucasian, whether it be color, hair, or whatever, the easier our lives would be.”  

Before the more positive response to natural hair, negative reception, and desire for easily managed hair resulted in Black women experimenting with different hair products and hairstyles. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Jheri curl became popular. Stars like Lionel Richie and Donna Summer began regularly wearing the Jheri curl, meanwhile, sales for products like activators, perms, and moisturizers began to skyrocket.

In addition to Jheri curls, curly perms became very popular in the Black community. In the 1980s Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston perfected the high, voluminous, sassy permed, and curled hairstyle, asymmetrical perms then made their way into the roundup. During the 1990s, straightened hair and stresses became very common in the Black community.  

Oftentimes many women are unaware of the chemicals that are used for these cosmetic products. Research published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showed a connection between using specific straighteners, like chemical relaxers and pressing products, and an increase in uterine cancer. This was especially true for Black women, 60% of whom had used straightening products. 

Additionally, many Black women have sued companies such as L’Oreal and Revlon stating that the company's products caused them irreparable harm and serious injury. The National Institutes of Health released a study that found that women who use chemical hair straighteners were more than twice as likely to develop uterine cancer as those who didn’t. Despite that information, the studies have not confirmed that the products cause cancer. More than 90% of clients using the products have had hysterectomies, while others had one or more myomectomy procedures to remove uterine tumors or fibroids. Some situations were so severe that they cost women their uteruses as well as their fertility. 

Despite the negative effects on Black women due to relaxers, some things can be done in the interim to help avoid these situations. One includes educating more Black women on the effects of these substances, and advising them that they may be more susceptible to certain chemicals while pregnant. Again, product labels must be more explicit about potentially harmful ingredients that are in the hair products.

The FDA is currently considering banning certain hair-straightening chemicals. Today, twists, braids, locks, and afros are more common and leave room for discrimination–thus the passage of the Crown Act in 2019 to put an end to hair discrimination. Now armed with knowledge regarding permanents and relaxers, 40% of Black women have opted to embrace their natural hair, while the remaining 60% choose a variety of different hairstyles. Although more research is deemed necessary to provide a direct link, there is no mistaking that Black hair is beautiful and worthy of  healthy preservation.