Welcome to Beauty & The Bag, a guide that keeps a close eye on high-value skin, hair and makeup trends aimed at Black consumers and questions whether it’s always worth spending your hard-earned coins.
The words 'budget', 'sacrifice' and 'cutting back' have been mentioned more than once in my household of late. In my partner’s eyes, my haircare expenses have been relegated to the non-necessities pile ("needs not wants!") as we prep for a pricey winter. I haven’t been able to fight his logic. Amid the widely documented cost of living crisis, many people are struggling to make ends meet as the price of energy, food and rent soars. And according to research by The Runnymede Trust, Black people across the UK are "disproportionately falling faster and further below the poverty line". Much like debates about cancelling Netflix subscriptions and forgoing takeout coffee, talking about the cost of Black haircare feels insignificant in comparison. I can easily cut back if need be. But many Black women in the UK are worried about affording haircare as costs rise — especially since products aimed at afro-textured hair tend to be considerably more expensive.
For reasons spanning self-expression, tradition, societal pressures and the unique demands of our hair type, Black women invest more than most in their hair. Per the Office for National Statistics, Black women spend a disproportionately large amount of money on hair and beauty products, accounting for 10% of the total haircare spend each year in the UK despite the fact they make up only 2% of the country's adult population.
This is by no means breaking news for Black women. Yet our obvious spending power isn’t always rewarded. New research powered by Black-owned hair subscription company Treasure Tress confirms that there is a "hidden texture tax" in products aimed at Black women, meaning that products for naturally textured hair are more expensive per unit and used more frequently and in greater quantities than products aimed at straight hair. As the UK endures the highest inflation in 40 years, the cost of these products will likely be further impacted.
With all this in mind, it makes sense that many Black women will join the one in four Brits who, according to YouGov, have been forced to cut back on their cosmetics spending. Yet while the Black women I spoke to are prepared to make changes, they fear their hair may suffer as a result, impacting their self-confidence both at work and at home.
It's almost framed as if we'll be blamed if we can't afford our electricity bill because we didn't cut back on our hair.
"I’ve been speaking to Citizens Advice about budgeting," says Trinity Asabea, who is in her 30s, lives in Manchester and has a corporate job. She loves caring for her natural hair but she’s been making significant cutbacks to her product spending since the financial crisis. "The people [at Citizens Advice] told me: 'Since you spend a lot on your hair, can you maybe reduce it?' It’s almost framed as if we’ll be blamed if we can’t afford our electricity bill because we didn’t cut back on our hair."
Asabea, who has a natural hair Instagram page, has been tallying up her monthly haircare spending and claims it used to be "in the hundreds" for products alone. Now she makes her own Ayurvedic hair products and hair butters in her kitchen, has stopped going to the hairdresser and wears her hair in a protective style, which she braids herself. Though she acknowledges that these cutbacks are necessary, she resents being unable to find cheaper products for her hair type in local stores.
"I can see double standards everywhere," she tells Unbothered. "[People] say things like: 'If you are complaining that your hair costs a lot, then why don't you just keep it in one style or something? Or why don't you just buy cheaper products?' But that cheaper product is not going to work for type 4 hair."
In this cost of living crisis, something had to give and for me, it's getting my hair done.
The struggle to find affordable hair products that work on textured hair types has long been part of the Black British experience. While major drugstores such as Boots and Superdrug have vastly improved their product offering in recent years, afro hair products are still up to 70% more expensive than their counterparts, according to Treasure Tress.
According to Treasure Tress' trend report, 47% of Black British women with textured hair do not feel as though any of the top 10 haircare companies —including Garnier, Herbal Essences, L’Oréal, Head & Shoulders, Dove and Neutrogena — cater to their hair type. Instead, Black women often opt to import their haircare products from the US and rely on specialist Black hair shops instead of local supermarkets and drugstores — all of which can be expensive.
It’s worth noting that due to the cost of living crisis, hygiene and period poverty is rife. Low-income workers across the board are having to choose between heating their homes, paying the rent, eating and keeping clean. Cosmetic donation services and charities like Beauty Banks and The Hygiene Bank have become a lifeline, providing costly items like toothpaste, deodorant and sanitary products. Yet for Black folk who are struggling, there’s no guarantee that they will find the specific products that will preserve the health and appearance of their hair.
"I live far from Black hair shops so I’m forced to pay high drug store prices," said one person in response to a cost of living question posted to my Instagram page. "I've asked the family to send products from Kenya as they are much cheaper," another replied. On TikTok, fresh from a debate over £1,500 beauty maintenance routines, many Black women are going back to doing their hair themselves. "In this cost of living crisis, something had to give and for me, it's getting my hair done," said user @canishatutsirai in a clip, explaining that instead of paying £160 to get her hair braided, she spent two days braiding it herself.
@canishatutsirai I don’t know if I can go back to paying someone to braid my hair #braids #canishatutsirai #costofliving #blackgirltiktok ♬ original sound - canishatutsirai
"Obviously there are affordable Black haircare products and there are luxury haircare products but even those that are deemed affordable are still significantly more expensive than affordable mainstream hair products," says Jamelia Donaldson, CEO of Black hair subscription company Treasure Tress, which facilitated the aforementioned trend report.
"There's so much conversation at the moment about buying own-brand products instead of buying brand names [Boots and Asda are among the brands offering cheap 'everyday essentials' ranges]. So if you have straight hair and were running on a tight budget, you could go to Tesco and buy a Tesco shampoo and conditioner for as little as £1. If you're a Black woman, you would never even consider doing that. It wouldn't even cross your mind."
Donaldson acknowledges that UK supermarkets and drugstores are making improvements when catering for Black hair but says the widespread lack of accessibility to Black hair products "validates the feeling of not being entirely British and not entirely belonging here".
"I think it's underestimated how spiritual and how connected to our culture our hair is. And I think that's underestimated by agencies and retailers alike," adds Donaldson.
To say that hair really matters to Black people is certainly an understatement and many researchers have examined the intense relationship between hair and Black women’s self-esteem and self-image. Black hair, whether in its most natural state or relaxed, in braids, weaves, wigs and so on, is so often politicised and scrutinised that our hairstyle choices never feel like just a hairstyle. It’s why, for some Black women, not being able to afford their hair’s upkeep is deeply concerning.
Asabea has always invested both time and money in caring for her natural hair and now fears that being unable to afford her usual monthly maintenance will make her feel "unkempt" and "unprofessional" in corporate settings. "I am the only Black woman among a team of 40. I am now so mindful, because if you're with executive people, yes, your hair can be natural, but corporate natural. I question whether I can have my afro all the way out or need to do some elaborate updo with slicked edges. Suddenly I’m asking all these questions where before I would have never really thought about it."
I class my hair as a necessity. In my head, I automatically just calculate [my hair] into my bills: electricity, gas and then my braids.
Efia Mainoo, from Manchester, runs Black Owned MCR, a platform showcasing Manchester’s braid, wig, locs, natural hair and beauty scene. She agrees that the pressure to look polished in both white corporate (so as to avoid hair discrimination) and Black circles is compounded by the pressure to save money.
"For me personally, I class my hair as a necessity," Mainoo tells Unbothered. "In my head, I automatically just calculate [my hair] into my bills: electricity, gas and then my braids. I just think, as Black women, we are held to a higher standard of what we need to look like."
Mainoo has been adopting low-maintenance protective styles such as braids and faux-locs as she worries about the rising cost of products and visits to the hairdresser. "Everything is expensive, it doesn't matter what route you go down — natural, braids, weaves — you're going to be spending a lot of money on your hair as a Black woman."
While cutbacks on luxury items are inevitable, Mainoo reminds me that Black women have always been resourceful with our hair. In a market that historically has not catered for Black beauty and hair, we’ve had to be.
"Whether we have to cut corners on the type of hair extensions we buy, learn new skills via YouTube or opt for styles that will last longer, we will make it work. We always have."
"It’s interesting, [Black hairdressing] is often described as a recession-proof business," she adds. "It doesn't matter if it's a recession, cost of living crisis or the pandemic, we will always want to have, like, braids done," she says. Donaldson agrees. "Black women will compromise on a lot of things but compromising on the way they look is not one of them."