The Fight To Get Toxic Chemicals Out Of Black Salons

Photo: Leonard McCombe/Getty Images.
I vividly recall my first time getting a whiff of relaxer. The smell of the white, creamy substance used to straighten hair fills the salon as soon as the stylist pops off the top of the container. It's hard to pinpoint exactly, but the scent is most like a combination of Nair, rotten eggs, and bleach. No matter how you might categorize the aroma, one thing's for sure: There's no way something with a smell like that, that can cause mild to severe burning of the scalp, and has the ability to disintegrate a soda can, is kosher to be around for long periods of time. This is the issue that The Atlantic is bringing to light in a recent article.

When Teni Adewumi, a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, spoke with stylists in Inglewood, California, she noticed a common theme among African-American salon workers: They all suffered from similar health concerns. And we're not talking bad backs or sore feet — although we're sure those were problems, as well. These ailments were more severe, like asthma, hair loss, miscarriages, and uterine fibroids.

“When we held focus groups with salon workers, we found these stories of lack of education on chemical exposures and chemical-related health problems,” Adewumi told The Atlantic. “Even though they had all gone to beauty school, there was just really no training around what these products could do to your body and to your reproductive system.”

In response, Adewumi is aiming to educate women on these health risks through the nonprofit organization Black Women for Wellness. As the environmental-justice program coordinator, she helps train stylists on safe products and practices — from understanding the ingredients in products to protecting themselves from certain equipment.

Even though they had all gone to beauty school, there was just really no training around what these products could do to your body and to your reproductive system.

Teni Adewumi
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The article explains that the main reasons stylists are often kept in the dark regarding the risks are the lack of research regarding long-term health effects and the loose federal regulation of the beauty industry: "The FDA regulates cosmetics in the U.S., but it doesn’t approve products before they hit the shelves. It also doesn’t require manufacturers to list the ingredients of professional salon products. In the U.S., companies can ask for forgiveness rather than permission, letting potentially hazardous products slip through the cracks."

While advocates like Adewumi are working to enact legislation that "requires manufacturers to list ingredients on all beauty-product labels; bans ingredients linked to cancer, birth defects, and developmental harm; empowers the FDA to recall unsafe products; and enforces stricter salon safety standards," it might be some time until we see true change, largely thanks to the chemical lobby.

In the meantime, there's a way you can help. Head over to The Atlantic to read the informative piece in its entirety, print out some information about the dangers of certain chemicals (along with what products to avoid), and start a conversation with your own stylist about safety.
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