They sting your scalp, they’re expensive, and after decades of concern over health problems, these treatments are falling out of favor.
Safiyyah Edley remembers being dropped off at the beauty salon as a child while her parents ran errands. When she came home it looked like her kinky hair had been hot-combed straight, but after a swim she noticed the texture of her hair was different.
“My hair would be all slick to my head,” says Edley, who is now 39.
The helmet hair was a telltale sign that the hairdresser may have used chemical relaxer on Edley’s hair—without her parents’ approval or her own knowledge. Like that of many other African American women and girls, Edley’s naturally kinky hair was a typical target of chemical relaxers, which provide a smooth appearance more reminiscent of Pantene commercials than their own natural locks.
Since long before women took irons to their long tresses in the 1960s, they’ve relied on a variety of treatments to make their hair straight—and some of those have been regulated for use of toxic chemicals. Early formulations of the Brazilian blowout treatment, which temporarily smoothes out frizzy hair, caught the attention of federal regulators for containing high levels of the carcinogen formaldehyde.
But the Brazilian blowout is a recent invention. The chemical hair relaxers favored by black women have been around since the early 1900s and haven’t seen the same severe health warnings or regulatory intervention. These relaxers break down chemical bonds in each hair follicle and strand and have been dubbed “creamy crack” by some users because they’re so relied on to maintain appearances.
Ingredients can include lye and phthalates, a group of chemicals used to improve flexibility in plastics that have been banned from use in pacifiers, soft rattles, and other baby products since 1999. Even so, phthalates remain a common ingredient in some cosmetics and personal care products, from shampoos to nail polish, and they have been linked to reproductive harm, including development of uterine fibroids. Uterine fibroids are a health issue common among black women; existing research hypothesizes that the common link may be the use of hair relaxers, though further research needs to be conducted for conclusive evidence.
“Back in the day when I was young, African American girls and women were putting relaxer on our edges every two weeks,” Edley says, referring to the puffy fresh root growth of treated hair. “I’m sure you’ve seen African American women with their edges missing. And we suffer from chemical burns, all of that. So just imagine putting this on children’s heads and they’re getting this service over and over and over.”
Hair relaxers were once very commonplace among African American women, who regularly reapplied the lotion-like product to their roots every two to eight weeks. The treatment can cost $100 a month, and those repeat visits add up. In 2009, $200 million was spent on hair relaxers aimed at black consumers. But that figure dropped to $148 million in 2013, the most recent year available, according to consumer research group Mintel. It expects hair relaxer sales numbers to drop to $72 million by 2019. This trend comes despite growth in market value of hair products for black consumers, which was worth an estimated $774 million in 2013, a 12 percent increase since 2009.
The inconvenience and expense of frequent hair appointments and concerns over the health impact of hair relaxers have paired with a resurgence of pride in natural hair to help those numbers fall. For many black women, wearing natural hair is a cultural touchstone.
While those chemical relaxers are falling out of style, the Brazilian blowout, commonly found at high-end salons at a cost of $200 or more, also lost favor after stylists who gave the treatments began reporting health problems such as respiratory infections, nosebleeds, coughing, and more. Studies by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review and researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, revealed that there was formaldehyde in the products used—some with levels exceeding standards set by federal workplace safety regulators—despite the fact that some were labeled “formaldehyde-free.”
California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris took action, suing a maker and settling with it to require better labeling and reformulation. The Food and Drug Administration has issued awarning letter about safety and labeling of the blowouts, and a current campaign goes a step further to ask for a recall of Brazilian blowout products. Some salons, in the meantime, are requiring the process be done outdoors or while stylists and clients wear gas masks.
“We’re concerned about workers who are using these products, and new workers exposed to these products and, in some cases, having their health changed permanently,” says Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research at Women’s Voices for the Earth, a health advocacy group that aims to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals.
Natalija Josimov worked in a New York City salon doing Brazilian blowouts for months. She began noticing symptoms including a bad respiratory infection and trouble breathing. She quit working in salons after one particularly terrifying night when she felt she could hardly breathe. “You think…they can’t allow something like that on the market if it’s that toxic,” she says. But many cosmetics products aren’t broadly tested before they’re put on the market, and the burden of proof usually falls to people who get sick.
While many stylists are affected by the demand for Brazilian blowouts, African American stylists and clients singularly bear the brunt of the use of chemical relaxers.
“It really affects African American women a lot more than women of other races,” says Chime Edwards about chemical hair treatments and black women developing uterine fibroids. HerYouTube vlog HairCrush has more than 240,000 subscribers, and she advocates for natural hair, giving her viewers ideas for how to style and maintain the look.
Over two decades of working as a hair stylist, Edley has become a natural hair advocate too—her salon is called Luv Mi Kinks. About 13 years ago, she decided to go natural, meaning she doesn’t use fake hair or chemical hair products.
But she still worries about the treatments she had when she was younger—she did go through a long stint of relying on relaxers. Less than a year ago, Edley was diagnosed with uterine fibroids after having a miscarriage. Doctors believe the fibroids could have caused the miscarriage, though it’s difficult to know. Edley hedges a bit when I ask her whether she blames chemical hair relaxers.
“I believe that over the years, the accumulation of me working so heavily with these products and especially some of the nasty toxins and stuff…I could see how it could be so,” she says. “I’m not saying it is, but I wouldn’t nix it out.”
For some, there’s peace of mind that there are alternative, formaldehyde-free, and more natural products now available. Edley and other stylists have also lobbied in Washington, D.C., for safer products.
There are also some tangible cultural changes among younger black women who celebrate natural beauty on college campuses that have natural hair clubs. International Natural Hair Meetup Day has been celebrated in multiple states in recent years and will take place May 30 this year.
As such, people who have embraced natural hair, in part due to the health effects of products but also because of a resurgence in black pride, have a community to turn to. And as parents are growing out their hair naturally, they inspire their children. One of Edley’s clients has five daughters who all have natural hair. “I think they’re so pretty and cute,” she says.
What is your view? Natural or relaxed?