Harmful chemicals found in hair-care products marketed to black women

Updated: Oct. 15, 2019 at 5:44 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Traditional black hairstyles such as cornrows, dreadlocks and Afros have been banned or regulated in multiple school and work policies across America. Unspoken rules of conformity can be considered discrimination by many people.

For more than four months, WAVE 3 News investigated how hair discrimination can take an emotional and health toll on its targets. Researchers, scientists and women addressed the dangerous health impacts on people of color, through years of chemical hair straightening.

For more than 25 years, Gigi Talbot has chemically straightened her natural curls.

“It cuts down on the conversation when you look (the) corporate version of normal,” Talbot said.

It goes beyond a style for Talbot, whom WAVE 3 News found getting a touch-up at The All Dolled Up Experience in Clarksville. She said she works in a predominantly white field and said she straightens, because she said she feels going natural might cause uncertainties at her workplace.

Danielle Polion and her friends -- 20-year-olds Gia Combs and Jayalah Bailey -- said they remember being told as young as 8 years old that their braids, locks, Afros and other styles that protect their strands of hair were messy and unkempt. Going straight was the solution.

“If you don’t do this, you might not be on the team,” Polion, 19, said she was told.

Robin Dodson researches environmental impacts on women’s health with the Silent Spring Institute. She said she found women of color have higher levels of chemicals that alter hormones in their body than any other demographic

“This is really important when we’re thinking about various diseases that may be controlled by the hormone system, like early puberty, infertility, also some cancers like breast cancer,” Dodson said. “We wanted to ask the question of where the sources of these chemicals are.”

Dodson tested 18 hair products uniquely used by women of color -- relaxers, frizz controls and hot oil treatments. She found more than 40 hormone-disrupting chemicals. She said they weren’t listed on a majority of the product labels, and the FDA doesn’t check before they hit the shelves.

“The vast majority of chemicals that are used in products out there have never been tested comprehensively for health effects,” Dodson said.

WAVE 3 News met with UofL Analytical Chemistry Professor Dr. Aleeta Powe to see first-hand what the hair products can do to the human body.

Sodium hydroxide, a popular chemical hair straightener, is the main ingredient in relaxers.

Powe poured sodium hydroxide on aluminum and a piece of meat representing a human scalp and bones. The aluminum changed form and the meat disintegrated.

“Back in the day, it was used to clean ovens,” Powe said.

Powe added that the chemical was considered extremely toxic, and federal regulations required special labels if there was more than 10 percent inside cleaning bottles.

WAVE 3 News looked at multiple relaxer labels that said sodium hydroxide was inside, but didn’t say how much.

“Hair of black women, black people, is mostly stronger than other cultures’ hair,” Powe said. “It’s thicker, and has these linkages, and it’s genetically designed to protect us from the sun.”

She said sodium hydroxide breaks those linkages.

“You look at people on different TV shows or positions of power that are actually on film, and you see everybody has the straight look, especially when we were younger,” Polion said.

Added Combs: “We grow up and we’re taught the straight looks neat and tidy and clean.”

Combs, Polion and Bailey said their parents didn’t want them to feel the sting from society’s lack of acceptance seen across the country.

“They don’t want you to block anything out,” Combs said. “Blocking your opportunity to get a job or events. So, they’re just like just be safe and wear it straight.”

They’ve seen more natural representation on TV and now have the courage to let their curls flow.

Talbot said she’s not ready to take the first step. She said she knows the risks from the chemicals inside the products. However, she said the way the world is set up, it’s easier to conform.

“As long as I have to be a team player, this is my uniform,” Talbot said.

Kentucky Rep. Attica Scott (D) recently filed a bill that would make it illegal to discriminate against natural hair styles. It would make Kentucky the fourth state in the country to ban hair discrimination, following California and New York. The bill will be up for a vote in 2020.

When looking at hair products, consumers are urged to avoid products that have fragrances. Dodson recommends keeping it simple -- fewer ingredients mean potentially lower chemical exposures. Also, avoid parabens and phthalates; many products can be found as “paraben free” or “phthalate free.”

For a full list of the products tested in the study, click here.

And click a link for more information on chemicals in hair products and their impact.

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