Black women with finely primped hair may be jeopardizing their health, according to a recent report by NBC’s TheGrio.com.
Some environmental justice advocates and scientists say the unnatural chemicals found in many hair care products, especially those on the Black hair care market such as relaxers, hair grease and oil sheen, can cause cancer, infertility or early puberty.
Hazardous chemicals including lye can cause visual burns and blindness, while others interfere with natural processes inside the body. Phthalates, for example, commonly described as a ‘fragrance’ on some product ingredient lists, is linked to endometriosis, a painful condition that causes the uterine lining tissue to grow outside the uterus, according to the report.
These additives—labeled hormone disruptors by endocrinologists—don’t only affect Black women or even just beauty products. Over 85 percent of recent man-made chemicals have not been tested by the FDA for their health effects, according to a health report released last year from the Collaborative on Health and the Environment. A large percentage that have been tested do increase health risks and can be found in every day products like plastic containers, baby bottles or electric appliances.
But scientists say some products in the multi-billion dollar Black hair industry may expose Black women to a high risk of ill-health effects. .
“African-American women, compared to their white counterparts, have higher levels of phthalates and they have higher levels of BPA,” Dr. Ami Zota, an environmental health researcher at the University of California San Francisco, told TheGrio.com. Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a plastic chemical often linked to heart disease, diabetes and cancer. “Nobody has really figured out why,” Zota added. “But I think the hair care products are part of that story.”
In a 1998 study, four Black girls between the ages of 1 and 8 developed breasts and pubic hair after using hair products with estrogen and placenta—a disruptive that mimics hormones—over a two-month span. When the children discontinued use of the products, the premature development stopped.
Almost a quarter of Black girls and 15 percent of Latina girls are developing breasts by age 8, according to a study released this summer, thegrio.com says. Hazardous chemicals, fatty foods and heavy body weight are the likely causes, say scientists.
“Lifetime exposure to estrogen increases your risk of breast cancer,” Zota said. “If you’re getting your menstruation earlier, that’s increasing the natural estrogen that you’re exposed to.”
A bill called the Safe Cosmetics Act, has been passed by both chambers of Congress and would outlaw products with known dangerous chemicals and require evaluations to ensure products are safe before they are sold in stores. The differences between House and Senate versions of the measure are still to be ironed out in a conference committee and observers say the chances of enactment are dim in both the 111th and 112th congresses.
Cherisse Scott of the Chicago-based non-profit Black Women for Reproductive Justice told thegrio.com, “It’s a deep-seeded problem (for Black women). “Environmental justice for us means tackling some of these deep-seeded generational issues also.”