I found this post written by Janet Singleton from the site http://www.thedefendersonline.com.
I found it very interesting indeed. Hope you all like it too.
Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair caused bad feelings last summer for many black female film-goers, who felt more betrayed than they did fairly portrayed by the film. Lost in all of the earsplitting debates and viral blog posts, was any deeper discussion of the health implications for black women and girls who use hair straighteners.
Millions of black women have had the experience: You reach under the cabinet and take out the perm kit, its box graced by a picture of a fairytale-haired model. You spread the contents over your kitchen table, review the directions, and gingerly mix the activator into the cream compound.
After you are done slathering on the perm; waiting for it to take; shampooing; rinsing repeatedly; conditioning; and drying, you look down at the leftover “activated” emulsion, the crumpled plastic gloves, the drop of activator still lurking in its small bottle. And you feel that you are at the scene of a biohazard in your own home. So you discard the spoils of your cosmetic duties in a place where no cat or two-year-old can access the contamination, and mentally earmark the tainted mess for the next trip to the Dumpster.
If you have ever wondered about the safety of chemical hair straighteners, you are in tall-cotton company. In the last decade, scientists, academicians, and physicians have been pondering that suspicion, too. “My colleagues talk about relaxers possibly being correlated with hypertension and other diseases,” says Dina Strachan, MD, a dermatologist, who specializes in treating ethnic skin.
The doctor chooses not to relax her own hair, not because of medical suspicions, but a personal preference. “As a black woman, I didn’t feel it was very affirming,” she says.
Relaxer-related problems she encounters in her Manhattan office are not serious, though. “I see a lot of people with hair damage, but not skin damage, from straighteners,” she says. “One patient said her hair broke off in patches.” The possibility that more ominous conditions are related to relaxers “is definitely worth taking a look at,” Strachan says.
In 1997, scientists at Boston University and Howard University quietly began to do just that. As a part of the groundbreaking Black Women’s Health Study, a team headed by epidemiologist Lynn Rosenberg surveyed 59,000 African-American women over six years, looking for a link between relaxers and breast cancer, a disease that tends to manifest earlier in black females than in their white counterparts. The researchers found no increase in incidence of the disease among those participants who used chemical straighteners.
But Rosenberg, professor of epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health, said more study is needed because, “We haven’t closed the book on hair straighteners.”
BWHS also found no connection between straighteners and preterm birth among black mothers. Previously, a smaller study of North Carolina women, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, also discovered no tie, but some scientists still consider it an open question whether toxic chemicals may be absorbed through the scalp in sufficient amounts to increase the risk of various adverse health effects, including cancers.
LYE-ER, LIAR, HAIR ON FIRE
What has researchers looking askance at relaxers is that usually the key ingredient for do-it-yourself and salon-oriented relaxers is either sodium hydroxide or calcium hydroxide, powerful caustics that burn the scalp and possess the ability to melt metal. Sodium hydroxide—NaOH— is simply the chemical name for lye. Calcium hydroxide— Ca(OH)2— while not identical, is a next of kin. The latter has been replacing the former in popular brands. Calcium hydroxide and the slightly milder guanidine hydroxide have become more common on product labels in the last decade. Still, the begging-to-be-punned “no-lye” claims on the boxes are a matter of semantics, or maybe just outright lies.
Neither the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nor the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), nor the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) characterize lye as a cancer causer. Yet a web page of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a branch of DHHS,acknowledges “reports of cancer of the esophagus 15 to 40 years (after exposure), caused by corrosion induced by sodium hydroxide.” These malignancies, it says, “were most likely the result of tissue destruction and scar formation rather than a direct carcinogenic action of sodium hydroxide itself.”
Though the study does not detail the circumstances of exposure to lye, it implies inhalation was a factor. “Off gassing of these products is dangerous,” says Leeann Brown, spokesperson for the Environmental Working Group, a consumer advocacy organization. “It’s not just a matter of direct application, but people sitting in well ventilated salons inhale fumes from relaxer chemicals.”
THE LADY DOTH PROTEST…
Manufacturers apparently try to counter sodium hydroxide’s tough-guy reputation by tagging their products with sweet names: “Soft,” “gentle,” and “lovely,” are words commonly used in relaxer titles. And for the political or health minded potential user, terms like: “Africa,” “organics,” “botanicals,” and “herbals.”
The claims of relaxers marketed for children seek to be even more reassuring. One product’s box shows two little girls with glistening straight hair and wide smiles and says it is the “world’s first and only” relaxer with ESP—“Extra Sensitive Protection.” And along with the usual chemicals, its ingredient list includes chamomile, olive oil, and St. John’s Wort, an herbal anti-depressant. Perhaps the manufacturers figure that the kid’s hair might be depressed after six years (its minimum age recommendation) of being kinky.
SAVING THE WORST FOR THE YOUNGEST
Yet children’s relaxers can be more caustic than ones made for adults, according the Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database, a web site created by the Environmental Working Group that ranks brands according to perceived health risks. The site assigns numbers one through ten to personal care products to indicate the level of hazard based on the chemicals contained and how the preparations will be used. Africa’s Best Kid’s Organics No-Lye Organic Conditioning Relaxer System with ScalpGuard receives a “10” for toxicity.
Leeann Brown, spokesperson for the EWG, says it’s not safe to apply any brand of chemical straightener to the head of a child.. “If straightening is started at a young age and done throughout life, it all adds up.”
Not all juvenile encounters with relaxers are cosmetic, though. Those are the ones that require a trip to the emergency room. “Ingestion of hair relaxer (by toddlers) has become increasingly common,” say the authors of a paper, written in the 90s, about children admitted for poisoning and mouth burns at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.
People underestimate the vulnerability of skin, says Andrew Ternay, University of Denver chemistry professor and author of The Language of Nightmares, a book about the use of chemicals in terrorism. “It is a living organ, not just an inert piece of something. There are materials capable of doing substantial damage to (your body) through it.”
LESS IS MORE
“Less is better,” Brown says. The way to be safer is to use fewer cosmetics, is EWG’s position. They are not alone in encouraging alternative approaches to personal care. Some cosmetologists are encouraging the return of heat-based press-and-curl styling, and beauty experts are proclaiming the virtues of using pure olive oil as a hair conditioner.
Commercial cosmetics can contain agents strong enough to affect even fetuses in the womb, says Stacy Malkan, author of Not Just a Pretty Face: the Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry. Her motto is “you can’t trust marketing claims.”
Ternay says that often consumers are wooed by appealing graphics on boxes and fail to read or understand the labeling. “The ladies don’t read the ingredients,” he says. On the other hand, product content listings can mislead buyers by listing the same or similar substance under different names, thus hiding the full amount of the ingredient in the cosmetic.
SAFE WHEN USED AS DIRECTED?
“The FDA is very frustrating,” Brown, of the EWG, says. Agency oversight of the cosmetic industry is nearsighted due to legal trapdoors that allow many product ingredients to go unlisted or masked by decoy names, she says.
FDA critics like Ralph Nader say the agency has been underfunded and de-fanged for years, and point to dangerous drugs and pet foods that have flooded the US market unopposed. “Sometimes US firms have to make safer versions of their cosmetics for European markets,” says Stephanie Hendricks of Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. “Legal requirements there are more stringent”
BLAME IT ON RIO…
But in 1995 the FDA did swoop down and confiscate two brands of relaxers. Consumers complained that Brazilian imports Rio Hair Naturalizer System and Rio Hair Naturalizer System with Color Enhancer not only caused burning, itching, and hair loss, it could turn hair green. Reportedly by 2004, up to nearly 2 million dollars worth of the product was destroyed, and it was taken off the market.
The effects the banned product created when it tried to “enhance” color may have been dramatic, but the combination of dye and straightening chemicals might do even worse damage than making your head look like Astroturf, Dr. Ternay says. Though beauticians traditionally recommend a two-week lag time between perm and dye applications to avoid hair breakage, a few newer products claim dye can be applied directly following a relaxer. “That’s scary,” he says. Procedures like washing and perming “sensitize” the scalp and makes it more absorbent, he says. “I’d be loath to have somebody treating my wife’s head with any sort of perm and then treating it with dye.”
CONDITIONERS: KILLING YOU SOFTLY…
But what usually follows a perm is a conditioner, and they are healthy and good for you and your hair, right? After all they have words in their names calling to mind life-saving procedures: “Therapy,” “emergency,” “renewal.” And of course there is the ever-popular “herbal” and “organic.”
Dr. Rosenberg, of Boston University, has concerns about conditioners. “Women who used products advertised as having animal placenta were shown to have a higher rate of breast cancer,” she says. Those brands contained hormones.
“Hormones are more easily absorbed into the skin,” Strachan says. She adds, though, that the skin on our heads is dense, causing decreased vulnerability to certain substances.
Estrogenic preparations are more likely aimed at African-American women, Malkan warns. They are marketed as remedies for “dry and damaged hair,” harmed from perms and other procedures.
TO DYE FOR
One potentially damaging practice for the hair of women of all races is coloring. But in the 70s scientists began to suspect that black coal tar hair dye could cause cancer. Extensive studies in the 80s and 90s of primarily Caucasian women in Europe and America, including one published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, that indicated those who used dark dye for 20 years or more had a four-fold increased incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, confirmed the suspicion. As a result, according to the FDA’s Koontz, the agency has incorporated the known risk of coal tar dye into the warning label requirements for cosmetics.”
WHO WAS THAT MASKED CHEMICAL?
You cannot, however, depend on the label to tell you if hormones lurk in conditioners and other cosmetics, Malkan says. “With some products you would not know without sending them to a laboratory.” She adds that “parabens,” preservatives commonly used in cosmetics, should be avoided because they are “hormone disrupters,” and they, too, may be associated with malignancies.
Another factor that dims transparency is the cloak of silence about where the whole kit and caboodle came from in the first place. More manufacturers are making their relaxer kits in whole or part in China. “Companies that distribute hair products may not know what is in the ones that are supplied by China, or from any country, for that matter,” Malkan says.
Relaxers have become citizens of the world. A product geared toward children hails from Britain. And the trail for owners of the “Africa’s Best” line leads to an non-contactable contact in Melbourne, Australia.
Nor does being in the United States necessarily make manufacturers more accessible. Despite this writer’s repeated requests for an interview, no representative from Revlon, makers of the Dark & Lovely line of relaxers, returned calls. The same non-response came from Johnson’s Products, makers of gentle treatment. Manufacturing origins are hardly the most important mystery, though. The safety of relaxers, themselves, is the bigger enigma. There are few studies and lingering questions. “We are just saying we don’t know,” says EWG’s Leeann Brown. “But we should know.”
Janet Singleton is an award-winning freelance journalist.