What chemicals to avoid in your hair products and safer alternatives
If you've ever walked down the hair care aisle at a beauty store, you know just how many different products are out there. Cosmetic manufacturers use marketing techniques that are based on certain ideals of beauty to target different demographics. A lot of products on the market are marketed exclusively for black women, like hair relaxers and dyes. But there is growing evidence that these products marketed to black women contain known harmful chemicals. Research has also shown that there are fewer non-toxic options in black hair products than there are in those marketed to the general public (1). Black women may be disproportionally impacted by harmful exposures to toxic ingredients in their hair products.
If you've been wondering what's in your hair relaxer, styling cream, shampoo, or hair dye, we've done the research and put together some information and simple tips to help minimize your exposure to harmful chemicals commonly found in many of these products.
Harmful Health Effects
Although significantly understudied, certain chemicals commonly used in products for black hair have been linked to cancer, childhood neurodevelopmental impairment, reproductive problems, hormone disruption, and asthma (2) (3). Parabens, formaldehyde, phthalates, and estrogenic chemicals from placenta are used in many hair straighteners and texturizers and have been associated with baldness, uterine fibroids, premature reproductive development, and increased risk of premenopausal breast cancer. In pregnant women, studies have also found that these chemicals are correlated with premature birth, low birth weight, and other adverse birth outcomes. Shampoos, conditioners and styling products marketed as less toxic or for "natural hair" may also contain other toxic substitutes, including parabens and phthalates that promote estrogenic or anti-estrogenic activity. Yikes!
In a recent study, which tested 18 hair products used by black women it detected 45 harmful chemicals including five that are regulated by California's Proposition 65 or are prohibited under the EU's cosmetics law. Many of these chemicals were not even disclosed in the ingredients listed on the product label (3). So much for the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1967.
Federal Laws and FDA Regulations (or Lack Thereof)
Why are these toxic chemicals in beauty products to begin with? Well, under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 (FD&C Act), with the exception of color additives, ingredients in cosmetics do not need FDA premarket approval and cosmetic manufacturers are not obligated to disclose safety information to the FDA (4). To make matter worse, the FDA only has the authority to investigate a product after concerns of non-compliance or violations are reported. Which means consumers will already have been exposed to these toxic chemicals and may even have experienced health problems. (4). Basically, people using these products are the test subjects of the cosmetic chemical industry.
Chemicals to Avoid
There's still a lot research needed to better understand how chemicals in black hair care products affect the public's health. And since the current cosmetics industry is essentially the Wild West of regulations, it's up to you to protect yourself. Below is a list of harmful chemicals like endocrine disruptors, allergens, and sensitizers that are commonly used in black beauty hair care products that you might want to steer clear of. This list is not exhaustive, but it's a good place to start (5) (6) (3).
- Formaldehyde or methylene glycol
- DMDM hydantoin,
- diazolidinyl urea and
- imidazolidinyl urea
- Octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane (D4)
- Decamethylcyclopentasiloxane (D5)
- Dodecamethylcyclohexylsiloxane (D6)
- Diethyl phthalate (DEP)
- Methylisothiazolinone—This is used as a preservative in conditioners, shampoos, styling gels and lotions.
- "Fragrance" or "parfum"—This is a generic term used for a multitude of different chemicals. Often times this is what you will see in the list of product ingredients when a manufacturer is not disclosing specific chemicals used.
- HHCB (Galaxolide)
- Resorcinol—This is often found in black beauty brand hair dyes.
- Sodium hydroxide (Lye)
- Calcium hydroxide—This is another caustic irritant just used to replace lye (sodium hydroxide) in hair relaxers, but is advertised as safer.
- Lead acetate—This is often used in hair dyes.
- Retyinal palmitate
- Specific alcohols
- Alcohol denat
- SD alcohol #4 (wood alcohol)
- Phenethyl alcohol
What You Can Do
Whew, that's a lot to look out for in ingredient labels! We know that list is a lot of information that you'll probably never remember unless you have an upcoming chemistry quiz, so we also have some easy-to-remember safer product alternatives and some DIY tips.
1. Follow the 5-ingredient rule: The first five ingredients make up the majority of what's in the product so, these are the ones that matter the most (6). If the first five ingredients are made from natural ingredients, it's probably a product worth considering.
2. There are many natural ingredients that help promote healthy hair, like aloe vera, avocado, shea butter, castor oil coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, grape seed, honey, and jojoba. Since these oils all have different properties and do different things like hydrating or strengthening your hair, you can solve a ton of different hair problems! (6).
3. Double check products using databases like EWG's Skin Deep database and BLK +GRN, which screens products using EWG's Toxic Twenty list. If a product has a low rating, it's best to avoid to all together.
4. One of the best ways to stand up for safer products is to contact your elected official or the FDA to urge them to strengthen the FD&C Act. You can scroll to the "STAND UP FOR #BEAUTYMADEBETTER!" for ideas on ways to make your voice heard.