Beauty Shop Hazards: Potential Toxins in African-American Hair Products

According to one recent study, African-American women appear to be faced with a greater variety of potentially-harmful products marketed specifically to them. Photo: Thinkstock.
According to one recent study, African-American women appear to be faced with a greater variety of potentially-harmful products marketed specifically to them. Photo: Thinkstock.

In the 20 years she’s worked as a hair stylist, Safiyyah Edley has seen many colleagues diagnosed with uterine fibroids and cancer. Yet it wasn’t until she began working at a salon next door to the Los Angeles-based health and wellness advocacy organization, Black Women for Wellness (BWW), that she learned the hair products she works with on a daily basis could pose serious health risks.

Jan Robinson-Flint, executive director of BWW, says many stylists and consumers don’t realize the beauty industry isn’t regulated, and that hair products marketed to African-American salons, such as hair relaxers, dyes, and glue used in weaves, contain some of the most toxic chemicals in the beauty industry.

“This is especially a concern given the frequency with which these chemicals are used in the black community,” Robinson-Flint says. “While these chemicals pose a slight risk to consumers, they pose a far greater risk to salon workers who use these products every day for hours at a time.”

According to the Nielsen 2013 African-American Consumer Report, black women spend nine times more on ethnic hair products than any other group in the U.S. In addition, the time spent working with toxic products can take a toll. A weave can take six to eight hours, and relaxers typically require touch-ups every three to four weeks.

“Black women are almost three times as likely to be diagnosed with uterine fibroids, and there’s some evidence the higher rate of fibroids is linked to the chemical relaxers used to straighten black hair,” says Robinson-Flint.

Breast cancer is also a concern in the black community, ranking as the most commonly diagnosed breast cancer among African-American women. In their work with salon workers, BWW discovered a number of black stylists were also breast cancer survivors.

A study published online in the January 2016 journal, Cancer Medicine, found that while all women should attempt to limit their exposure to personal care products containing known endocrine disruptors such as parabens and phthalates, African-American women appear to be faced with a greater variety of potentially-harmful products marketed specifically to them. For example, the study notes that a number of African-American hair products include “placenta” (or placental extract) that contains estrogens that can stimulate the development and growth of hormone receptor positive breast cancer.

“After my aunt, who owned a beauty salon for over 30 years, was diagnosed with breast cancer, I began doing my own research and found many other black stylists who had been diagnosed with breast cancer or fibroids,” Edley says. “ I made the decision to ensure that my salon, Luv My Kinks, doesn’t use hair products containing toxic chemicals.”

Still, Edley worries about the effects of long-term exposure to the chemicals.

“Two years ago, I was diagnosed with uterine fibroids at the same time I was told that I had miscarried,” she says. “I haven’t worked with relaxers in over decade, but my years of exposure to the toxic chemicals remain a concern.”

Promoting Education to Salon Workers

Teni Adewumi, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental health sciences in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, joined BWW’s Healthy Hair Initiative in the summer of 2014 as their environmental-justice program coordinator.

As part of a partnership between the Occupational Health Internship Program and the UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health program, Adewumi began surveying salon workers in South Los Angeles about the types of hair products they were using, and whether they had incurred any health problems.

“I kept hearing about the same health issues – asthma, hair loss, uterine fibroids, cancer, and miscarriage,” Adewumi says. “In the surveys we conducted, we also found a need for more education about the health risks of certain products, the use of proper protective equipment and ventilation, and information that would encourage stylists to move toward creating greener and more natural salons.”

In addition to training stylists in safer practices and products, Adewumi says that BWW hopes to use the information they’ve gathered to affect change.

“We’d like to see legislation that requires manufacturers to list ingredients on all beauty product labels, ban ingredients linked to cancer, birth defects and environmental harm, and encourage the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to recall unsafe products and enforce stricter salon standards,” Adewumi says. “In order to protect the health of black salon workers, federal cosmetic regulations need to change.”

And while she is working with the city of Inglewood to create a pilot healthy hair recognition program, she would love to see BWW’s efforts expand to other parts of California and across the country.

“We are working with the National Healthy Nail and Beauty Salon Alliance,” Adewumi says. “While there are other groups that are working on issues such as nail salon safety, we’re the only organization looking at health issues surrounding black women’s hair products and salons.”

Adewumi sees the natural hair movement gaining steam in salons across the country, but worries about what she calls “greenwashing” by certain beauty manufacturers.

“Some products that claim to be green and natural still contain harmful ingredients,” Adewumi says.

For example, look for ingredients labeled “methylene glycol” which is basically formaldehyde mixed with water. It’s how beauty companies can get by with claiming their products are free of formaldehyde. Other “natural” products have been found to contain fragrances and parabens, sulfates and other potentially harmful chemicals.

Pushing for More Studies

In addition to training stylists and advocating for safer hair products, Robinson-Flint says more research needs to be done on the long-term health effects of black salon products. The few studies completed to date paint a disturbing picture.

In May, 2011, Mary Beth Terry, a Columbia University epidemiologist, and other researchers published an article, “Racial and Ethnic Differences in Hormonally-Active Hair Product Use: A Plausible Risk Factor for Health Disparities,” in the Journal of Immigrant Health. It reported that African-American and African Caribbean women surveyed used products that contained chemicals – commonly referred to as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) – linked to various reproductive and birth defects, breast cancer and heart disease.

A 2012 study led by a team of researchers at Boston University’s Sloane Epidemiology Center also found strong evidence linking hair relaxers used by African-American women to an increase in uterine fibroids.

“The best way for both salon workers and consumers to avoid health risks, is to read labels on beauty products,” says Edley who has become a natural hair advocate. “Avoid products that contain parabens and coal tar (linked to cancer), fragrance, sulfates, and lye, aka sodium hydroxide” Edley says. “Check the safety of specific products on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetic database.”

Edley and other salon workers have joined BWW in advocating for the health of salon workers at the Annual National Environmental Justice Advisory Council meeting, and traveling to provide testimony before congressional committees in Washington, D.C.. But for change to take place, she encourages other stylists and consumers to speak out.

“In order for changes to be made, I think more black women need to speak out,” Edley says. “Make your health a priority by purchasing products that don’t contain toxic ingredients.”

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