The Natural Hair movement seeks to promote a wider awareness and understanding of the troublesome hair styling practices within the Black community, including the use of chemical hair relaxers and regularly wearing tight hairstyles, including braids, weaves and hair extensions.
So to does the well-respected John Hopkins University, whose medical team issued guidelines about hairstyling for women with Afro hair – the most naturally-brittle hair type – citing a general lack of knowledge as to just how damaging common techniques can be. Whilst fully-preventable, resulting hair loss can be permanent if risky styles or styling methods are used repeatedly.
Now another factor has come to light and may be worthwhile considering in relation to Black women’s hair loss: toxic ingredients in Afro-specific hair care products.
Toxic chemicals in Afro hair products
According to a report published in the Environmental Research journal by the Silent Spring Institute, an American research company which specialises in investigating public health risks with the help of local communities, a number of hair products marketed towards Black women contained potentially harmful substances.
The scientists findings state that, of the 18 different hair products tested – which included hot oils, anti-frizz hair polishes, leave-in conditioners, root stimulators, hair lotions and relaxers and were result of the answers Black women gave in a survey about their hair product use – a total of 45 of the 66 endocrine disruptors being testing for were contained within all of these products. Furthermore, each product contained between 6 and 30 of these potentially hazardous ingredients associated with a variety of health effects ranging from reproductive disorders and birth defects to asthma and cancer.
Silent Spring’s research discovered that, of the 18 separate hair products, 11 of them contained 7 chemicals which are either banned in the European Union or regulated under California’s Proposition 65 legislation. This is also known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, and is there to help consumers in the state of California make informed decisions through labelling about ‘chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm’, according to government information.
The report states that ‘hair relaxers marketed at children contained the highest levels of 5 chemicals prohibited in the EU or regulated under Proposition 65′, whilst 84 per cent of chemicals the researchers detected in the tested products were not listed on the products’ labels.
The chemical found in the highest concentration of those measured as part of this study was cyclosiloxanes, which was most often present in anti-frizz products. This is the chemical which improves hair shine, manageability and detangles.
Women who receive silicone breast implants are also at a high level of risk from cyclosiloxanes. Short-term inhalation of cyclosiloxanes has shown to produce a heavier liver weight, whilst chronic exposure was listed as a ‘high priority public health concern’ in America in 2015, as it is believed cyclosiloxanes and other siloxanes may cause autoimmune function disruptions, among other issues.
Whilst all products contained synthetic fragrance chemicals and 78 per cent included parabens in their formulations, parabens, fragrances, nonylphenols and diethyl phthalate were commonly found in root stimulators, hair lotions and chemical relaxers.
The American Environmental Protection Association (EPA) has expressed concerns that many nonylphenol-containing products are washed away and the chemical is known to be ‘extremely toxic to aquatic organisms’ and ‘has also been shown to exhibit estrogenic properties in in vitro and in vivo assays.’ It has been shown to decrease male fertility in fish and feminise aquatic life due to its ability to cause hormonal disruption. There are concerns that high levels of nonylphenol could also cause hormonal issues in humans.
Meanwhile the effects of diethyl phthalate in humans are unknown, however the American Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry states that it has, when consumed in large amounts, caused death in animals and caused birth defects in rat offspring from contaminated mothers. Potential links to cancer are unconfirmed. It advises ‘Once it [diethyl phthalate] enters your body, it breaks down into other chemicals, some of which are harmful. Diethyl phthalate and its breakdown products will leave your body mostly in the urine within about 2 days. Only small amounts of the compound or its breakdown products will remain in the tissues.’
Black women’s hair products potentially more harmful
Researchers acknowledge that these chemicals are also found in many other products, including skincare, and are not alone in being included in haircare products targeted at women with other hair types, they noted that the levels in which they appeared in hair products specifically targeting Black women were ‘generally in the higher range compared with other hair products’.
Reports from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the bio-monitoring data shows that Black women have higher levels of some phthalates and parabens in their bodies compared to White women. Silent Spring’s researchers also advise that Black women are also more likely to start puberty earlier and experience ‘higher rates of hormone-mediated problems such as pre-term birth, uterine fibroids and infertility’ compared to women of other races. As such, discovering that Black women may be taking in higher levels of chemicals which may potentially affect their hormones due to their hairstyling and hair care products may be even more of a breakthrough than it first appears.
‘Certain products, including hair straighteners and moisturizers, are more commonly used by Black women, often to meet social beauty norms. Black women also purchase and use more hair products than other groups’, states the Silent Spring research. “Chemicals in hair products, and beauty products in general, are mostly untested and largely unregulated,” adds the research’s lead author Jessica Helm, PhD. “This study is a first step toward uncovering what harmful substances are in products frequently used by Black women, so we can better understand what’s driving some of the health issues they’re facing.”
Could make hair loss worse
Whilst this information does not diminish the damage that can be caused by triggers of conditions such as Chemical Trauma or Traction Alopecia – those most often caused by adverse hair-styling methods – it may add another consideration for specialists when diagnosing hair loss conditions. An allergic response to toxic elements could certainly make existing conditions appear worse than they are.
Hair shedding from all over the scalp can occur as a result of excess strain placed on the body – such as that caused by an underlying illness, or the presence of substantive levels of toxic substances. This is known as Telogen Effluvium when it lasts up to six months and Chronic Telogen Effluvium or Diffuse Thinning when it lasts for more than six months. Both are temporary hair loss conditions and can be treated, though usually regular hair growth will resume once the underlying issue has been resolved.
Anyone concerned about what’s in their hair products is advised to seek out formulations listed as ‘paraben-free’, ‘fragrance-free’ or ‘organic’ as a starting point, whilst for those experiencing excessive shedding or severe breakage it is recommended to have a professional consultation with a hair loss specialist. They can provide a diagnosis of which condition – or conditions, as it is possible to have more than one simultaneously – is present, as well as giving personalised options for at-home hair loss treatments.
The Belgravia Centre is the leader in hair loss treatment in the UK, with two clinics based in Central London. If you are worried about hair loss you can arrange a free consultation with a hair loss expert or complete our Online Consultation Form from anywhere in the UK or the rest of the world. View our Hair Loss Success Stories, which are the largest collection of such success stories in the world and demonstrate the levels of success that so many of Belgravia’s patients achieve. You can also phone 020 7730 6666 any time for our hair loss helpline or to arrange a free consultation.