In 1993, at the age of 10, I had my hair relaxed for the very first time. My mum applied it using one of those DIY kits that featured a beautiful and happy little black girl on the front, sporting a head of long, silky, straight lengths. I remember being hopeful that my mum had finally found the solution to the 'problem' that was my hair. I remember the strong chemical smell and I remember the burning that signalled it was time to wash it out. What I don't remember? Having long, silky, straight hair like the girl on the box.
Some 20 years later, I discovered I had five fibroids after being hospitalised for suspected appendicitis. The ultrasound technician was pretty blasé about it and said I didn’t need to worry, so I didn’t, but in 2014 I went for my 12-week ultrasound scan only to discover I had suffered a missed miscarriage at seven weeks. I went on to have two more very early miscarriages before I decided to do my research. That's when I began to suspect that my miscarriages were happening due to low progesterone. I was formally diagnosed with oestrogen dominance and low progesterone in 2016.
Fast-forward to this year, when I appeared in a BBC interview about a new study conducted by the Silent Spring Institute which showed that black women are exposed to dozens of potentially hazardous chemicals through the hair products they use. Chemicals such as cyclosiloxanes (silicone), nonylphenols (detergent-like substances) and phthalates (a substance added to plastic to encourage malleability) have been subsequently linked to hormone disruption, as well as medical issues such as fibroids, asthma, infertility and even cancer. Were my health issues a coincidence? Perhaps, but since no one could give me a definitive "no", I decided to make a film about it, which I'm crowdfunding for via Indiegogo, using the hashtag #myhaircarenightmare on both Twitter and Instagram.
Why? Because it isn't just this study. There is so much research out there which has pinpointed a relationship between black hair products and health issues. This includes a study published in 2017 by researchers at Rutgers University, which found a link between breast cancer and the use of hair dyes and hair relaxers used by black women, while a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that the use of relaxers is associated with fibroids. "We now know that many hair products contain chemicals that are considered carcinogenic and or hormone disrupters, leading to increased risk of medical issues such as fibroids," said Shirley McDonald, consultant trichologist at the Hair and Scalp Clinic. "Trichologists see lots of conditions that are likely to be triggered by hair products," she adds. "In particular, the case of the condition central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia, a type of permanent hair loss to the crown area of the scalp," she adds.
In other words, black women are overexposed yet inadequately protected when it comes to hair products. Overuse of braids, weaves and extensions, coupled with bad haircare practices, has led to an over-reliance on products. And the cultural, historical and societal pressures black women face when it comes to their hair only exacerbate the problem. "A vast number are even seeking to find a magical product or products," says McDonald. "Overall, black women want something that will moisturise and 'grow' their hair." She added that there are women out there who believe these 'wonder' products actually work.
Lekia Lée, founder of Project Embrace, a campaign that seeks to change perceptions of beauty, concurs. "I liken it to throwing money at a problem," she told me. "We have been made to believe that our hair is a problem, so we throw products at it. Unlike women of other ethnicities, black women go on a hair journey, something other women do not have to think about, because their hair may fit the 'norm'."
In addition, the way black women use products is unique. Products are employed frequently, generously and can be left on for weeks or even months on end, with continuous reapplication in between. Despite research into the individual chemicals themselves, there is very little research being done into the cumulative effects and potential risks associated with this method of product use – and this is worrying. "These chemicals are supposed to be safe in small amounts but the dime-size amount that is recommended is simply unrealistic for black hair," said Cigdem and Terrence Millington, founders of Mrs Milli's, a toxic-free, plant-based hair and skincare company. "This results in bioaccumulation [where toxic chemicals build up over time]," they continued. "The body holds on to these chemicals, until one day, they might come forward as a medical issue. It may seem crazy that a hair cream can cause cancer or fibroids but that’s as real as it gets." And the studies don't suggest otherwise.
The most recent research, conducted in April this year by the Silent Spring Institute, showed that 80% of black hair products tested contain "endocrine disrupting and asthma causing chemicals". The range of products tested included relaxers, hot oil treatments, leave-in conditioners and anti-frizz products. They tested for the presence of 66 harmful chemicals including BPA, phthalates and parabens. A total of 55 endocrine disruptors were detected, while 11 products were found to contain seven chemicals prohibited in the EU, with hair relaxers marketed at children containing the highest levels of chemicals prohibited in the EU. Most concerning of all, they found that 84% of chemicals detected were not listed on the product label.
While cosmetic products are relatively well regulated in the EU, most of the products used by black women are imported, primarily from the USA or Asia, where regulation and testing isn’t as stringent. The EU Cosmetics Directive prohibits the inclusion of BPA, phthalates, alkylphenol and ethanolamine. However, the same study found several products containing these ingredients, making them unfit for sale here. Yet walk into any 'black hair shop' and they are readily available. "The people who make these products are often those who regulate them or have direct connections to the regulators, and to be quite honest, the money is a major factor," the Millingtons continued. "These chemicals allow the products to last longer and they are also very cheap to buy. Also, don’t forget that a sick person is big business in the US. It’s a dirty cycle that needs exposing for the benefit of all women," they added.
And that is exactly what my upcoming documentary, My Hair Care Nightmare, aims to do. The film will provide some much-needed answers, stimulate discussion and question a culture that has created a market which perpetuates the myth that our hair needs to be 'tamed' with dangerous product after dangerous product. This isn’t an issue of 'relaxed' hair versus 'natural' hair. It affects anyone who cares for afro-textured hair in general, from black men and women to parents of black and mixed race children and foster carers, as well as hairstylists who use these products day in, day out. We need to know what’s in our hair products in order to safeguard our health. That's the bottom line.