From Relaxers to Some Shampoos: Too Many Products Marketed to Black Women Are Bad for You

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I have spent plenty of shopping trips browsing the “ethnic hair care” aisle. Women of color know all too well the constant hunt for the perfect product. As our hair-care knowledge, needs and routines (not to mention the seasons) change, we restock our product drawers accordingly. Whether you have a relaxer or are now natural, products are a major part of taking care of textured hair.

According to Nielsen, black women spend $7.5 billion annually on beauty hair-care products—spending nine times more on ethnic-targeted products than the general market. Even with these staggering market dollar figures, the hair-care industry has been slow to cater to black hair needs, with some major brands like Dove and Head & Shoulders recently releasing “textured” hair-care collections and starting curl-focused campaigns.


Market analysis (conducted by Mintel) estimates that products marketed for “natural hair” make up 35 percent of the black hair-care market. With such a limited selection, especially in relation to our spending power, it is disturbing that such a large amount of these products are reported to contain hazardous ingredients—75 percent, in fact.

Seeing the market start to pay attention to the unique needs of black hair, and to address the black consumer, has been a progressive step. Black-owned brands like Carol’s Daughter and Shea Moisture have been catering to black hair for decades. But as more mainstream brands get into the black hair-care market, are we putting ourselves at risk by using these products targeted toward our hair?

Environment Working Group is a nonprofit, nonpartisan environmental-research organization that describes its mission as empowering people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Last week the research organization published a report that focused on the ingredients of black cosmetics—including makeup and hair-care and skin-care products. The study looked at 1,177 beauty and personal-care products that are specifically marketed to black women; 665 of these products were for hair care. Results suggested that 1 in 12 of these total beauty and personal-care products are ranked highly dangerous on the scoring system created by EWG, using its cosmetic database.

It seems safe to conclude that the inclusion of chemical relaxers on this list would drive up the occurrence of hazardous ingredients found in these products. We have been hearing about the harmful chemicals used in relaxers for years, even with the introduction of no-lye formulas. Dangerous chemicals in relaxers and texturizers have been linked to certain forms of baldness, growths in the uterus, and pregnancy or birth-related problems.


But the growth of the natural-hair movement has significantly shifted the dollars that are spent on chemically altering products. Sales of relaxers and texturizers have dropped by close to 40 percent in the last eight years.

However, you may be surprised to see a few of your favorite natural-hair brands of shampoos, conditioners and styling products scoring high or moderately high on this list. These products marketed toward natural hair contain less toxic materials than relaxers, but they still contain harmful ingredients.


So the question remains, how do we protect ourselves?

With such a small section of the hair-care market geared toward black hair, there is a lack of safe product options for women looking to avoid ingredients like parabens and multi-ingredient (often unknown) “fragrances.” Aside from making all of your own products, the low-potential-hazard products are not always easy to find.


Earlier this year, Black Women for Wellness—an advocacy and research group—released a 60-page report (pdf) that concluded with many of the same results as the EWG report. The five-year research study opened with the statement that research on the health consequences of black hair-care products is limited: “In the rare cases that they are, black hair products are found to be some of the most toxic beauty products on the market.”

Both reports suggested that part of the issue is the lack of federal standards governing which products can be used in beauty and personal-care products. Many of the hazardous chemicals found in these products are banned in Europe, Canada and Japan. Unfortunately, there are very few policies that regulate the testing and labeling of beauty products.


Staying knowledgeable on the names of these toxic ingredients, and the brands that are known to use them in high quantities, is a good first step to avoiding the use of these products. This is a larger issue than just finding a product that is healthy for your hair. Paying attention to the labels of your hair-care products, and buying organic when possible, could have a major influence on your overall health.

Shayna Watson is a freelance style and beauty writer who can be heard saying “Natural hair is a lifestyle” at least once a day. A Pittsburgh native, she currently lives in a shoe-box apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y.—which is fitting, since she really loves shoes. You can check out her personal style musings on A Nu Creature and follow her on Instagram.

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