by Curlan Campbell
- Hazardous chemicals lurking in Black haircare products
- Contributed towards irreversible hair and scalp damage
- Products with ‘all natural’ labelling contain harmful chemicals
- ‘Organic’ on cosmetics or skincare labels is not regulated by the US FDA
Grenadian Dermatologist Dr Doris Joseph has seen reactions from haircare and skin products. She encourages hairdressers and consumers to be vigilant when purchasing and using certain products to chemically straighten, relax, or otherwise alter hair.
A proliferation of hazardous chemicals lurking in Black haircare products have contributed towards irreversible hair and scalp damage. Dr Joseph said even products touting labels with ‘all-natural ingredients’ don’t necessarily equate to being safer for use.
Women, especially of African descent, have helped push the movement towards embracing the aesthetic of their naturally textured hair rather than conforming to Eurocentric beauty standards. However, even products with ‘all natural’ labelling contain harmful chemicals.
“Natural or organic does not ensure healthier, safer or better for your skin. It does not mean hypoallergenic. Some natural products like sandalwood, bergamot oil and sulphur are known to provoke allergic reactions. These products tend to be more expensive, generally too,” said Dr Joseph.
According to new studies in the US, hairdressers and consumers of hair and skin products have been exposed to high levels of phthalates, which found that women of colour — particularly Black women — are disproportionately exposed to phthalates and other dangerous chemicals from haircare products. It also highlighted the need to better regulate what kinds of chemicals are in personal care products. Phthalate exposure is linked to multiple health problems, including birth and reproduction problems, impaired brain development, diabetes, and cancer. They are found in everything from flooring to toys to food packaging. The chemicals are commonly used by cosmetics and haircare product manufacturers to make fragrances and colours last longer and to make hair more flexible after products are applied.
In a global industry that is said to be worth $805.61 billion by the year 2023, people of African descent spent 9 times more on haircare products despite owning a small fraction of the industry. Many of these companies taking advantage of the natural hair bandwagon find creative ways to disguise harmful chemicals in cleverly crafted labelling and terminology, leaving consumers to navigate shady claims and persuasive branding and marketing. For example, the term ‘organic’ on cosmetics or skincare, contrary to consumers’ thoughts, is not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Dr Joseph said consumers would be shocked to learn about the rampant inclusion of hazardous ingredients in Black hair products. “Haircare and skin products may contain additives and preservatives which have been linked to health problems. The parabens have the potential to disrupt hormonal function. There is also a risk of the development of cancers and fertility problems. Certain haircare products can lead to pigmentary problems, thinning and loss of hair, allergic reactions and chemical burns. Products can cause damage to hair follicles and provoke acne-like lesions on the face, chest and back.”
“Fragrance-free may contain fragrance masking chemicals. Also, preservative-free may contain propylene glycol; even toxin-free or non-toxic are also unregulated marketing claims only and doesn’t guarantee safety,” she continued.
Consumers must be mindful of at least a dozen harmful chemicals used in haircare products. These include but are not limited to:
- Coal tar dyes phenylenediamine and colours listed as c1 followed by a 5-digit number.
- DEA related ingredients
- Dibutyl phthalate
- Formaldehyde releasing preservatives, e.g. quarternium
- Parfum (fragrance mix)
- PEG compounds
- BHA BHT
- Sodium Laureth Sulphate
Dr Joseph urges people to carefully read the labelling of products, do their research and consult with a dermatologist or doctor since there are many instances where people have experienced allergic reactions such as:
- Contact dermatitis, redness, itching, pain at the site of contact
- Urticarial reactions; pigmentary disorders
- Photo contact dermatitis where the skin becomes more sensitive to sunlight
- Seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff)
- Angular cheilitis (from the use of toothpaste)
- Perioral dermatitis (lipsticks)
Recently there has been a push for more cosmetic hair and skin products to meet chemical safety standards established by the European Union (EU). For example, the EU has banned or restricted more than 1,300 chemicals in cosmetics alone while the US has outlawed or curbed just 11.