I have a love-hate relationship with afro hair shops. If I pass one on my travels, there’s a high probability I’ll venture in, even when I don’t need anything. Nothing pleases me more than floor-to-ceiling aisles of brightly coloured packaging, the contents of which I know will make my hair smell like a tropical fruit cocktail.
Afro hair is a multimillion pound industry, with black women estimated to spend six times more on haircare than other women – but there's a problem. While afro hair shops are an Aladdin's cave of pre-poos, butters, leave-in products and wigs, they are often staffed by so-called 'professionals' who, despite not having a single strand of afro hair knowledge, regularly serve hundreds of consumers a week.
Afro hair shops up and down the country are often owned and run by all-male teams of south Asian descent. In many instances, they offer advice and recommend products to women who are predominantly black or have curly hair, despite not having any qualifications, insight or personal experience of these hair types and their complexities. It's no wonder, then, that women feel let down.
"Before it was my job to immerse myself in the haircare world I felt so out of my depth in afro hair shops," Akesha Reid, digital editor at Hairdresser's Journal, told R29. "As much as it's great to have so much choice, I was baffled by the differences in products that looked the same. The people that work in these shops seemed more interested in pushing their own agenda on what they needed to sell than actually knowing what's good for my hair type." Akesha suggests this could be why peer-to-peer natural haircare blogs and YouTube reviews have become so popular in recent years. She also points out the risks of potentially unregulated products, which are often imported and stocked in afro hair shops. "In many cases, you can buy imported products that don't have any other presence in the UK, such as distributors or UK representation. This can be dangerous, especially considering the chemicals that live in products like relaxers and dyes."
When I put this question to my Instagram followers, most were on the same page. "I never ask the staff, even when they tend to advise you on what to buy," commented one. "I go in and pick up what I know and what I'm used to." Another wrote: "I have to educate myself through recommendations from people I know personally, YouTube reviews, online forums, as well as researching product ingredients at length. It’s mad annoying that we can’t access the advice and information we need from in-store professionals but the service just doesn’t exist right now."
The general customer service is often under scrutiny, too, as women have reported prejudice or discrimination. The issue of afro hair shops turns more sour when you acknowledge the array of skin 'bleaching' and lightening products on sale alongside hair items, which often contain potent ingredients at illegal concentrations, such as hydroquinone, which are either banned in the EU or have to be prescribed by a medical professional. It is remarkable to see brands that want you to invest in and embrace your natural hair texture stocked alongside skin bleaching products that destroy natural skin colour. It seems that afro hair shops, which have become synonymous with the black cosmetics industry in the UK, are failing the very same consumer they aim to serve.
Up until recently, there was no representation when shopping for afro hair products in high street beauty chains.
When it comes to hair and hair products, a flood of online hair businesses have emerged in response to bad reviews of bricks-and-mortar afro hair shops. Many of them use Instagram to draw in consumers who have had enough of being fed misinformation in store and bombarded with unnecessary (and sometimes unsafe) products and bad quality hair. Yet despite filling a gap in the market, many of these online brands just aren't cutting it for consumers, especially when it comes to purchasing hair.
Jazmin Kopotsha, R29's entertainment editor, has had many a bad experience while shopping online. "Like many of us, I've turned to online deliveries when I've not been able to (or wanted to avoid) going to a physical hair shop," said Jazmin. "The trouble is, as well as the barrier of not being able to physically touch things like hair to check its quality (I've ordered Remy human hair and received a synthetic hot mess that rivals my 18-year-old Cindy dolls), lots of online retailers are getting a reputation for awful service. They might look sleek and glossy on Instagram, but looking through the comments you'll see lots of complaints from customers about not having received their orders, or not having emails responded to or queries answered. It's really frustrating. Demand is so high, especially since extensions have become much more mainstream." Sadly, Jazmin mentions that consumer defeat never has much of an effect on the people selling, because there are only so many alternative retailers to turn to.
Buying safe and regulated products is slowly becoming simpler thanks to the emergence of trustworthy black British female-owned businesses, which have entered the market to cater for the specific needs of afro and curly hair. Using social media platforms to showcase products and build their communities, brand founders can empathise with their consumers and offer unprecedented access to quality ingredients, targeted solutions and a premium experience. Antidote Street is one such platform, amalgamating a beautiful e-commerce store with expert content on understanding hair textures, product reviews and personalised hair advice. Akesha, herself an afro hair expert, agrees: "Antidote Street is great for a highly curated edit of premium products."
Speaking to R29, Antidote Street's CEO Winnie Awa, who recently made the transition to natural hair, said that she was compelled to change the status quo in the black hair industry as a result of her own frustrations with the alternatives available at the time. With a clear focus on education, Antidote Street works with professional trichologists and hair experts. "That way, we can provide digestible content on how to care for hair," said Winnie. "Knowledge is power and we believe in arming our customers with the best so that they can make the right choice."
Its tightly curated edit includes Dizziak, dreamed up by beauty journalist Loretta De Feo, who, like Winnie, launched her brand out of necessity. "It blew my mind that the big companies ignored the market for so long," she told R29. "First and foremost, I am the consumer, and if I wanted healthy, effective products that looked and smelled great for my beauty routine, I knew others would too." With Dizziak now stocked in Liberty and Selfridges, Loretta has created a brand that transcends demographics and specific hair types by focusing on hydration and proven ingredients.
However, premium products demand premium prices, and while black women reportedly spend more on hair than the national average, there have to be accessible options at all price points. Up until recently, there was no representation when shopping for afro hair products in high street beauty chains, despite the UK's large black and ethnically diverse population. Ronke Adeyemi, founder of brownbeautytalk believes this has had a negative impact on many women's self-esteem. "Every black woman I know talks about having had difficulty finding products for her hair when growing up," she told R29. "Not only are we passionate about our readers having access to correct information but we also want them to be aware of the many purchasing options out there." As well as Antidote Street, brownbeautytalk recommends Hair Popp, Xsandy's and Detangled Hair, to name a few retailers.
Thankfully, the wider situation has improved, too, and major retailers are finally creating shelf space for the affordable products that so many consumers rely on. After launching its 2016 Shades of Beauty campaign, which highlighted beauty products for people of colour, Superdrug's sales of afro hair products rose by 80% in 2018-2019. It has now become the UK’s number one retailer for the category.
A spokesperson for Superdrug commented: "[The campaign] signified change in the UK hair industry, and highlighted the importance of consumers with textured hair being able to access products aimed specifically at their hair types – that’s a huge step forward for inclusion." This newfound ease of shopping for hair products is echoed by many, including Ronke: "It makes me feel great as I can pick up products when I am in my local town centre doing the weekly shop. I don't have to make a special trip to a specialist shop, which is both time-consuming and costly. It's good to have choices, which is fundamentally all we want." Among the brands that have benefited hugely from Superdrug's new strategy are Shea Moisture and other popular afro and curly hair brands such as Creme of Nature, As I Am, Twisted Sista and Pantene Gold Series. Meanwhile, high street rival Boots now stocks brands like Camille Rose Naturals, Cantu and ORS.
The afro hair shop monopoly may not be over, but whether you are a wig wearer, hair relaxer devotee or full-blown naturalista, it is brilliant to see that the beauty industry is responding more than ever to ensure representation, accessibility to products and education. Of course, you don’t have to turn your back on your local hair shop altogether, but as Winnie said, knowledge is power, and it really does pay to do your research before you buy.