Respect Black Hair: Black hair products can contain hazardous chemicals, say Black hair professionals

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Chemical-laden Black hair care products have links to cancer and hair and scalp problems, according to a recent study, nonprofit research organization and Black Iowa hair professionals.

“The chemicals in Black hair products can actually be harmful surprisingly,” said Cortney Ewing, a certified hair loss practitioner and certified associate trichologist at Arukah Hair Loss Center in West Des Moines, Iowa. “Some cause almost instant breakage and some cause terrible damage as we get older.”

Cortney Ewing is a certified hair loss practitioner and certified associate trichologist at Arukah Hair Loss Center in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Some of the most popular Black hair care products can contain dozens of damaging and toxic ingredients with links to breast cancer, researchers have found.

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 05: Cardi B attends The City of West Hollywood's Pride Parade on June 05, 2022 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)

“I teach a lot of women, especially Black women, to not chemically change their hair. Do that with a wig,” said Tene Williams, a licensed braider and owner of AM/PM Braiding Studios LLC in Sioux City, Iowa. “I know you like Nicki Minaj. I know you like what Cardi B is wearing. I know you like Beyonce is wearing.”

But keep your own mane healthy, she said.

Tene Williams is a licensed braider and owner of AM/PM Braiding Studios LLC in Sioux City, Iowa.

Hair relaxers, hair dyes and even some shampoos and conditioners contain chemicals that most consumers know little about and can’t pronounce. The products can damage the hair and scalp and do much worse, according to researchers.

Ewing helps women with alopecia. She said Blacks first began applying excess heat and chemicals to their hair to appeal to American beauty standards that prize “straight, European hair.”

“We had no idea the damage we were causing and passing along to the next generations,” she said.

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Some of the chemicals found in Black hair care products are dangerous, according to the nonprofit EWG’s Skin Deep database, which scores products based on chemical hazards. Low to moderate hazards range from one to six. High hazards range from 7-10. Users can click on products to see detailed information about “ingredients of concern” and to find products with less hazardous ingredients. Thousands of popular Black hair care products are contained in the database.

“If you cannot pronounce it — if it has a horrible smell — are you going to put it in your hair?” said Williams. “A lot of those chemicals are catalysts to diseases such as cancer.”

Using the products can also lead to chemical burns, hair damage, hair loss and other problems, she said.

Ingredients of concern include those linked to cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, allergies and immunotoxicity, endocrine disruption, organ system toxicity, irritation, and more, according to EWG, the nonprofit research and advocacy organization, which maintains the searchable database.

According to a recent study, one in eight women in the U.S. will get breast cancer during their lifetime, and Black women are at a higher risk of getting breast cancer, under the age of 40, than any other racial or ethnic group.

“One reason for the higher risk of breast cancer may be exposure to harmful chemicals called endocrine-disrupting chemicals in hair and personal care products,” said lead researcher Lindsey Treviño, an assistant professor in the Division of Health Equities and department of population sciences at City of Hope, according to a press release. “These chemicals mimic the effects of hormones on the body.”

No-lye relaxers, waning in popularity amid the growing natural hair movement, received the worst scores in the database due to hazardous ingredients.

Here's a sampling of some of the hair relaxers found in the database:

  • Dark and Lovely’s Healthy Gloss 5 Shea Moisture No Lye Relaxer received a score of 10, for “high hazard” due in part to the ingredient isobutlparaben, a preservative.
  • Olive Oil Crème Relaxer Extra Strength received a score of 6 for “moderate hazard” for fragrance and methylisothiazolinone, a preservative.
  • African Pride Olive Miracle Deep Conditioning Anti-Breakage No-Lye Relaxer received a score of 9 for “high hazard” for fragrance, proylparaben, a fragrance and preservative and retinyl palmitate, a skin conditioning agent.

Consumers must also be concerned about the ingredients in shampoos and conditioners, according to EWG.

  • Cantu Revitalizing Curl Activator in Acai Berry received a score of 4 for “moderate hazard” due to fragrance.
  • As I Am Strengthening Shampoo received a score of 5 for “moderate hazard” due to fragrance and concerns about allergies, endocrine disruption, among others.

Ewing urges women also to watch out for the following ingredients:

  • Hydroxide, which is typically found in no-lye relaxers
  • Fragrance, unless it is essential oils
  • Colors, which may show up on labels as FD&C or D&C
  • Sulfates, such as sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate

Black women must look for products that are good for their hair, Williams said.

“Whichever hair type you have, you still have to polish your crown,” she said. “You still have to cater to your crown.”

EWG Verified rankings contain products that avoid ingredients of concern and have good manufacturing practices, according to its website.

Learn more about healthy Black hair practices

Iowa Natural Hair Braiding Registry

Coming up: The CROWN Act, the Culture of Black Hair

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