One of the most fun things to do when visiting the US is to check out a local drugstore and stroll among aisle after aisle of tantalisingly unfamiliar items. But to buy hair care products in America may come with the very real risk of hair loss.
The chances of your US-bought shampoo or conditioner causing baldness are small, but the fact that they exist at all is down to the apparent lack of control enforced by the US Government.
According to a report in the New York Times, the European Union has restricted or banned in excess of 1,300 chemicals and compounds that manufacturers may wish to use in beauty products. By comparison, says the Times, America's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has outlawed just 11 ingredients.
Now, a new bill on the table could start to redress the balance by empowering the FDA to assess at least five chemicals every year that are used in cosmetics. Companies could also be ordered to enforce a recall when problems arise.
The bill was introduced by two Senators a Democrat from California and a Republican from Maine and has won widespread backing, although not everywhere. The New York Times explains that lesser measures have been proposed by a Texan Republican which would do relatively little to change the status quo.
Among the more powerful bill’s supporters is the Environmental Working Group, a US organisation which has written extensively about the dangers of relaxing chemicals used in hair-straightening treatments offered by salons. These keratin-based products help turn frizzy hair into straight hair, but an investigation found that they are also often laden with formaldehyde, a human carcinogen which can also cause extreme allergic reactions.
According to the Environmental Working Group there have been cases of “massive hair loss” among both salon clients and personnel working with this type of product. “Inexplicably,” they say, “government officials charged with protecting public health and worker safety have been slow to move against risky hair straighteners.”
They further point out that hair relaxers based on formaldehyde formulations have been recalled in Australia, Ireland, Canada, France, Germany and Cyprus but are still used regularly in the US.
Which isn’t to say that the FDA is toothless: the organisation recently took the unusual step of issuing a safety alert in relation to WEN Cleansing Conditioner after more than 100 complaints of hair loss. At the time of writing the makers of WEN were being sued in a class action lawsuit.
But what about regulations here in the UK? The MHRA - Britain's answer to the FDA - regulates pharmaceutical ingredients including medication but how are Brits protected from potentially harmful chemicals in cosmetic products?
Currently the UK follows the legislation set out by the EU Commission regarding cosmetic ingredients. Whether the same rules will apply once Brexit takes effect is currently unknown so we asked Belgravia's chief Superintendent Pharmacist Prescriber, Christina Chikaher for her opinion on the subject.
"At the moment the UK is still part of the European Union so we follow the EU regulations set out by their panel. I personally believe it is better for a group to decide these kinds of issues rather than sole countries and find the current legislation to be both strict and reasonable. I would hope the UK maintains these standards moving forward post-Brexit," she advises.
"In terms of what's happening in the US, I agree with what the FDA is trying to do to improve safety. Formaldehyde should be banned and it is extremely important to regulate cosmetic products - especially anything that is applied directly to the skin. I believe every country should do what is necessary and not just stick to investigating five ingredients per year, as the FDA is outlining, although this may be an issue of manpower and resources," says Christina.
When using unregulated products, you cannot be sure of the safety - nor the efficacy - of what you are using. Even some regulated products can cause issues if used incorrectly so, in terms of averting hazards, it is of the utmost importance to take steps to minimise any potential risks.
When using home-use hair dye or chemical treatments such as relaxers or perming solution, always remember to do a small patch test first. This will alert you to any sensitivity or allergic reaction before you apply it to your whole head. Failure to do so, as well as not following the product's application directions accurately, can result in a variety of issues from hair breakage to permanent hair loss caused by burns (scarring alopecia).
Whilst it is a step that many people tend to miss out in home beauty routines, especially if they have used the same product before, it is a wholly necessary one. Formulations may change and your sensitivity may also fluctuate so it really is worth spending a few minutes 24-48 hours before you plan to dye or treat your hair, doing a patch test.
The hair loss condition most often seen as a result of problematic hair care products is Telogen Effluvium. This general all-over thinning of the hair often clears up on its own within six months, but can also be helped with a bespoke telogen effluvium treatment course.
Clinically-proven, MHRA and FDA approved hair loss treatment has also proven very effective at dealing with the genetic conditions Male Pattern Baldness and Female Pattern Hair Loss. Despite an urban myth to the contrary, these are rarely, if ever, caused by hair care products, though in some cases they could be triggered or exacerbated by adverse reactions.
The Belgravia Centre is a world-renowned group of a hair loss clinic in Central London, UK. If you are worried about hair loss you can arrange a free consultation with a hair loss expert or complete our Online Consultation from anywhere in the world for home-use treatment.
View our Hair Loss Success Stories, which includes the world's largest gallery of hair growth photos and demonstrates the level of success that so many of Belgravia's patients achieve.