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Q I hear black hair care products can be quite toxic. Is this true?
A Can’t a sister just get ready in the morning and worry about run-of-the-mill beauty problems like “Damn, this shampoo is drying out my hair,” not “Holy shit, I’m stewing my scalp in poisons?” Unfortunately, getting the kink out isn’t always so clear-cut.
Truth is, black-focused or not, most of the personal care products lining shelves are riddled with questionable chemicals like cancer-linked parabens. But afro conditioners and relaxers have an even dodgier history. A few year ago, jaw-dropping reports came out linking early puberty among African-American girls to what they were smearing on their scalps.
Turns out several of the dry hair treatments contained the female sex hormone estrogen. For a long time, manufacturers even advertised that their products were rich in hormones, estrogen or placenta, as if that were a good thing. Then a pediatric oncologist released a few case studies of girls as young as 14 months old developing breasts and pubic hair after the products were used on their heads. (That’s right, I said 14 months, not years.)
The tiny study didn’t really qualify as hardcore proof, but it did get people wondering why half of African-American girls hit puberty by eight years old (this isn’t the case with girls raised in Africa). Especially in light of the fact that over half of African-American parents, totally unaware of the potential risks, were using the hormone-laced products on themselves and their kids.
Once that controversy hit the fan, many brands took the hormone claims off their labels and ingredient lists, though none returned NOW’s calls to confirm that products like B&B Super Gro had indeed been reformulated without the creepy estrogens.
Still, plenty of products pushing cow and human placenta (ick) are readily available online, including Hask Placenta’s Henna ’n’ Placenta conditioner, PureStrength Close conditioner and skin tone eveners like Z Bigatti’s Enlighten Skin Tone Provider.
And just because your product is estrogen-free don’t mean you’re safe. African Pride highlighting kit gets the worst score you can get on NYC-based Environmental Working Group’s ranking of 27,000 products, thanks to chems like cyclomethicone, which accumulate in fatty tissue, and other enviro toxins.
Another product ranked high on the hazard scale actually markets itself as a natural kids’ product. But Africa’s Best Kids (and adult) Organics No-Lye Conditioning Relaxer not only contains totally unnecessary mink oil (yep, from dead minks), but also BHA, an endocrine disrupter on California’s list of chemicals known to cause cancer.
The lesson there is, don’t automatically assume that products that push a few natural ingredients on their labels, like shea butter or jojoba oil, are as earthy as they seem.
Some stores like the Big Carrot and Shopper’s Drug Mart do carry purer options, like Shea All Naturals hair balm, shampoos and conditioners. Ebenenaturals.com sells wonderful handmade products with really simple all-natural ingredients.
But what if you’re looking for a little improvement on what the universe gave you and want a weave instead? Synthetic weaves and wigs are basically made of some sort of mystery plastic (aka petroleum-based) fibres. Then you got your yak hair, obtained by shearing Asian yaks the same way sheep are (not quite vegan, but no yak should have died for your weave).
And finally, you’ve got your cream-of-the-crop human weaves. They might seem like the natural choice, but where the hell does all that hair come from? Most of it was snipped off heads in China or India (even the ones sold as “European”). Those two countries exported $154 million worth of human hair in 07. And sadly, the hair trade is far from fair trade.
Yes, maybe 20 per cent of India’s share is known as temple hair (collected from temple floors where thousands get their heads shaved in a humility ritual called tonsuring). But it’s not all so pious.
Shocking reports of razor gangs attacking women for their hip-length locks are growing more common. And husbands get about $10 to shave their wives’ heads, with or without the women’s consent.
Who knew a head of hair could hide so many secrets?