The Hazardous Chemicals in Black Hair Care Products

In the Mix

A new study reveals what some scientists and researchers have suspected for years – that frequent and long-term use of lye-based hair relaxers may have serious health effects, including breast cancer. Published in Oxford University’s Carcinogenesis Journal, the study found that Black women who used these products at least seven times a year for 15 or more years had a roughly 30% increased risk of developing breast cancer compared with more infrequent users.© Provided by The GuardianPhotograph: Hero Images Inc./Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo© Photograph: Hero Images Inc./Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo‘White-centric beauty standards have led many Black women to embrace hair and skin treatments that could pose serious risks to their health, often without their knowledge.’

The research team also analyzed survey data from Boston University’s Black Women’s Health Study, which followed more than 50,000 African American women for more than 25 years and observed their medical diagnoses and any factors that could influence their health. The results? Of the women followed from 1997 to 2017, 95% reported using lye-based relaxers, and ultimately 2,311 developed breast cancers.AdMortgage Benefits

This additional risk factor is just one part of a wide race gap in breast cancer rates among American women. We already know that Black women have the highest occurrence of breast cancer before reaching the age of 40, are more likely than white women to develop highly aggressive breast cancers, and are more likely to die from it at any age – 40% more likely, to be precise.

And when it comes to the role of haircare products in that imbalance, none of this is new. In 2019, research published in the International Journal of Cancer found that ​​permanent dye use was associated with a 45% higher breast cancer risk in Black women, compared with a roughly 7% higher risk among white women who used these products.

It’s important to examine why Black women are so overrepresented in the market for these harmful products to begin with. For centuries Black women in the west have been told that their skin tones and hair textures were inferior, unprofessional and largely undesirable.


Even today, anti-Black hair discrimination is rampant in many professional settings, particularly in corporate and customer-facing roles – so much so that Black advocacy groups and US legislators have been working to pass new laws that would make hair discrimination illegal. So far, however, only 13 states have passed the “Crown Act.”

Biased, white-centric beauty standards have led many Black women to embrace hair and skin treatments that pose serious risks to their health, often without their knowledge. And despite the abundance of evidence pointing to these risks, corporations and government regulators aren’t doing nearly enough to protect the Black women who are the main consumers of these products.

NMAH Archives Center African American Cosmetic and Food Label Collection 0480 Box 1 Folder- Valmor Products Co. Label from Luckey Brown Skin Lightener

For context, one in 12 beauty and personal care products marketed to Black women in the US were found to contain highly hazardous ingredients such as lye, parabens and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. Research from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group also found that fewer than 25% of products marketed to Black women scored low in an assessment of their potentially hazardous ingredients, compared with 40% of products marketed to the general public which researchers classified as low-risk.

This issue cuts across all aspects of the beauty industry. Skin lightening products, another legacy of the cultural idea that dark skin is less desirable, are a thriving industry in the US. Women of color reportedly spent more than $2bn on such products in 2020. Users have reported chemical burns and lifelong scars.

Warnings about the dangers of these products are minimal, leaving many Black women with insufficient information with which to make decisions on what products they use. To combat this, the EWG created a database listing all known personal care products targeted toward Black people, with information about their ingredients and potential problems. Unfortunately, this kind of effort isn’t happening on any large scale, or being supported by the companies who actually make and market these products – a gap that will no doubt continue to leave Black women at risk.

In a society that imposes largely Eurocentric standards of beauty, desirability and respectability on all women, Black women in particular are placed under immense pressure to mold themselves to these standards in order to be accepted in social and professional settings. It’s crucial that personal care companies and the government do their part to keep Black female consumers safe and healthy.

The Toxic Ingredients Hiding in Natural Hair Care Products

Ladies we need to focus less on how to care for curly hair and more on hair care for curly hair. In other words, our primary concern for curly, frizzy, and naturally textured hair should be its health. The first step to achieving optimum levels of hair health is by ditching the natural hair care products that are filled with toxic chemical ingredients. Instead, opt for safe, organic products to add to your hair routine. They may be a bit pricier, but they’ll never cost you as much as something like cancer. 

There are hundreds if not thousands of toxic chemicals out there. There’s also a lot of miss-information—not to mention greenwashing. If you don’t know what greenwashing is, here’s the long and short of it: greenwashing is a deceptive form of marketing in the beauty industry. It’s a way of labeling products to make consumers think that they are green, aka chemical-free and environmentally friendly.

It’s illegal, but that doesn’t mean companies don’t get away with it. Therefore, attention must be paid. That’s why we’ve rounded up ten of the most toxic ingredients in natural hair care products to get you started. Keep in mind that there are many more out there, and it’s up to you to do the research.

1. Benzene


Benzene is a Toluene, which is a colorless liquid hydrocarbon found in coal tar and petroleum. If that’s not enough to give you pause, then perhaps this will: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), benzene is incredibly toxic, as it’s a known carcinogen linked to cancer and reproductive issues. It’s also known to affect our bone marrow, decreasing the production of red blood cells.

It’s used as a solvent to dissolve dirt and oil across a number of commercial products, and it’s in many of our basic hair care products.

2. Formaldehyde


Formaldehyde is a preservative that has been widely used in natural hair care products to help relax textured hair. It has recently been banned for use in cosmetics by the FDA because it’s a known carcinogen as well as an eye and skin irritant that can cause hair loss. It’s also linked to asthma among children and individuals with compromised immune systems. 

So, if you find yourself sneezing or tearing up in the shower, the formaldehyde in your natural hair care products may be the culprit. There are also other known “formaldehyde releasers” that manufacturers sneak into their hair care products to get around the FDA. Those chemical ingredients include Imidazolidinyl Urea, Diazolidinyl urea, DMDM Hydantoin, Methylene Glycol, Quaternium-15, and Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate. 

They’re called formaldehyde releasers because they release formaldehyde when heated—and there’s probably more out there that we don’t know about yet.

3. Dimethicone


Dimethicone is a silicone-based ingredient found even in the best hair care products. Its reason for existence is to smooth over the hair cuticle to tame frizz and add sheen. It does this so well that it suffocates the hair and scalp, causing irritation. Since it’s not water-soluble, it’s very hard to remove, causing it to build-up on your scalp. 

It’s also a known endocrine disrupter that has been linked in infertility and uterine cancer. Trust us, there are better ways to smooth and define your curls. 

4. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is considered “moderately hazardous” by the EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database. By “moderately hazardous” they mean that it’s linked to cancer, neurotoxicity, organ toxicity, endocrine disruption, and skin and respiratory irritation.

It’s typically used as a foaming agent in shampoos and soaps, and it’s good at dissolving dirt and oil. It’s also good at striping your natural curls of all their dignity, causing them to lose definition and become prone to breakage. It’s also toxic to aquatic life, so for the sake of your beautiful curls, your health, and the fishes, steer clear of SLS and it’s counterparts. 

5. Polyethylene Glycol

Polyethylene Glycol

Polyethylene Glycol is one of the many synthetic petrochemicals (PEGs) found in natural hair care products and dyes. PEGs are responsible for completely stripping your hair and scalp of its natural and protective oils. This PEG, in particular, leaves the skin exposed and vulnerable to bacterial and fungal infections.

Polyethylene Glycol also contains high levels of dioxin, which is a carcinogenic byproduct of the chemical process used to make it. 

6. Propylene Glycol

Propylene glycol

Propylene Glycol is the mother of all PEGs. Its safety is also all widely debated, mainly due to the fact that is doesn’t bioaccumulate in the body. Sure, your bodies rid themselves of this petrochemical within 48 hours of absorption, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t doing any damage during its stay.

You’ll find this ingredient in many of the best hair care products on the market. What they don’t advertise, however, is that it breaks down the proteins and cellular structure of your hair, and quite effectively. It’s also easily absorbed into the skin, where it declares open season on your immune system. From there it can cause neurological, respiratory, and cardiovascular issues.

Once absorbed, it creates a pathway via the skin barrier for bacteria and other harmful ingredients to be absorbed into your body. So to recap, it destroys your hair and your soul. 

7. Retinyl Palmitate

Retinyl Palmitate

Retinyl Palmitate is known as Retinol’s nicer cousin. Only it’s not nice at all. It’s like a synthetic form of Vitamin A—on crack. It’s used to enhance the suppleness and sheen of textured hair. It’s also mostly derived from Palm Oil, which as we know, isn’t the most sustainable practice. 

Retinyl Palmitate is another known endocrine disrupter that’s linked to cell mutation, tumor growth, and skin and DNA damage when exposed to UV rays. It’s also toxic to the reproductive system. So, if you care about the Orangatangs and don’t want cancer, avoid this stuff at all costs.

8. Parabens


In Portuguese the term Parabens! means congratulations. In terms of hair care ingredients, however, there’s nothing to celebrate here. Parabens are xenoestrogens, which are used as preservatives in many shampoos. They’re dangerous because they mimic the estrogen in our cells and are linked to breast cancer, among other things.

If that news isn’t bad enough, they’re also damaging to the hair and scalp. They cause dryness, irritation, premature scalp aging, and hair loss. They also have pseudonyms to help them hide within ingredient lists—butylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben, and isobutylparaben. So, read those ingredient lists carefully.

9. Phthalates


Phthalates are chemicals with the ability to soften PVC plastics and cause reproductive damage—especially in men. That’s why they were banned in 2009 in California from the manufacturing of children’s toys. In commercialized hair products such as hair sprays, gels, etc., they’re used as plasticizers, which add flexibility and hold to hair. 

The list of harmful side effects doesn’t end at reproductive damage either. Phthalates have been linked to a range of side effects from premature birth to cancer. These also have a whole list of sneaky names that you should become familiar with.

10. Fragrance

“Fragrance” equals chemicals. Even if it’s listed as natural, we promise you it’s a combination of chemicals that you want nothing to do with. We’d love to discuss which chemicals you’ll find in “fragrance”, but the number of toxic combinations is infinite. They do, however, include phthalates almost 100 percent of the time.

Whenever you inhale a chemical fragrance, you’re sending toxic fumes to your brain. This causes irreparable damage to your respiratory, neurological, and reproductive systems. Unless the actual ingredients—like organic essentials oils—are listed as the fragrance, you’re just looking at an umbrella term for the toxic icing on your already chemical-filled cake. 

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