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Essay: Health Effects of Chemical Hair Relaxers on African American Women

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  • Published: 26 October 2015*
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For many African American women, using a hair relaxer is an essential tool to maintaining their hair. However, the chemicals used in relaxers are being linked to causing health issues that can be chronic or deadly. According to the American Journal of Epidemiology, women can be exposed to the chemicals in hair relaxers through scalp lesions and burns. Besides scalp irritations, hair relaxers are being linked to causing uterine leiomyomata, blindness, breast cancer, and early puberty. Many people are not aware of the ingredients that make up a typical hair relaxer. For many years the main ingredient used in relaxers was sodium hydroxide, also known as lye. Sodium hydroxide is a powerful alkaline caustic used in products like Draino. (Guide to Less Toxic Products, 2006) Today chemical hair relaxers are advertised as ‘no-lye’, which makes consumers believe they are using a safer product. Unfortunately, much of the ingredients in ‘no-lye’ products can cause the same health issues as lye. The purpose of the proposed research is to show the harmful effects chemical relaxers have on African American women and to show why relaxers should be regulated by the FDA. This project will use data from the American Journal of Epidemiology. The following are specific aims for the proposed project:
Specific Aim #1: To study if chemical hair relaxers are the cause of the increasing number of health issues in African American women.
Representative Hypothesis:
The long term use of hair relaxers will cause physical or chronic health risks to the women that use the products.
Specific Aim #2: To determine if exposure to chemical hair relaxers cause health problems for beauticians that apply them.
Representative Hypothesis:
Long term exposure to chemical hair relaxers can cause long term health effects on beauticians.
Evolution of Hair Relaxers
In today’s society you are judged on how you look. Some people see their hair as a way to define who they are. Some African American women have a hair complex due to centuries of being told to accept the European standards of beauty. With that mentality, African American women have been obsessed with hair. That obsession has helped grow the hair relaxer market.
The hair relaxer was invented by Garrett Morgan, an African American tailor and repairer of sewing machines in the early 1900s. His invention was something he discovered when he accidentally left a chemical he had developed on a cloth made of animal fur. When he realized that the chemical straightened the fibers of the animal cloth, he tested the chemical on other items before trying it on his own hair. What he discovered was that his chemical could straighten curly hair. Once Morgan transformed his chemical to a gel form, he marketed it as an alkaline relaxer which started the evolution of the black hair care industry. (www.biography.com/people/garrett-morgan)
How it Works
Hair relaxers are strong chemicals that come in the form of a cream. The two ingredients that give a relaxer its strength are sodium hydroxide and guanidine hydroxide. Sodium hydroxide has a very high ph factor between 10 and 14. Guanidine hydroxide has a lower ph factor. Once the chemicals penetrate into the hair shaft, the curl is loosened or ‘relaxed’, the hair becomes straight. Although the desired effect is for the hair to become straighter, once this process is done the hair actually becomes weaker and more likely to be susceptible to breakage and other damage. (“Skin Biology,” 2009)
Impact of Toxic Chemicals on Salon Workers
Salon workers are surrounded by high levels of chemical exposure on a daily basis. Many of the ingredients found in hair products can cause health related issues such as asthma, dermatitis, and neurological symptoms. The chemicals used are also known to increase the risk of cancer and miscarriages. Due to the high potency of the products, salon owners are encouraged to have safety regulations in place such as exhaust ventilation. This helps the salon workers from inhaling too much toxic air. However, due to the fact that salon workers breathe in fumes all day, it can still cause harm. Also there are some beauticians that work out of their home and do not have the same regulations as a regular salon building. There needs to be a resolution to reduce the health crisis women working in salons are facing. (Tsigonia et al., 2010)
Types of Hydroxide Relaxers
Active Ph Market Positive Negative
Hydroxide 12.5-13.5 No-Mix
Lye Effective for curly hair Scalp irritations
Hair damage
Lithium &
Hydroxide 12.5 ‘ 13.5 No-Mix
Lye Effective for curly hair Scalp irritations
Hair damage
Hydroxide 13 -13.5 No Lye Less irritation Could dry hair
Significance of the Proposed Study
Women go through a lot of lengths to maintain and beautify their hair. It is scary to know that a person’s quest for beautification can lead to chemical burns, hair loss, cancer, early puberty or other health risks. These health risks could be avoidable if chemical hair relaxers were required to go through an approval process the same way drugs do before they go onto the market. Although there have been complaints and evidence of the damage that the ingredients may cause, chemical hair relaxers are still sold in many stores and sold to salon owners without any regulation.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require hair relaxers to be pre-approved before it goes onto market. The law does not even require the manufacturers of the relaxers to tell the FDA what their safety information is. FDA only gets involved when there are several complaints. They then investigate and only enforce action when the product is not in compliance with the law. (“U.S. Food and Drug Administration,” 2014)
Today the manufacturers of the chemical hair relaxers are legally responsible to make sure of the safety of their products. This is not enough based on the results of continuous health issues suffered by consumers and beauticians applying the product. Unfortunately manufacturers do just enough to keep their products on the shelf. Now is the time to hand the responsibility to the FDA to make sure there are more test, regulations, and safety put toward the manufacturing of chemical hair relaxers. This action could keep unnecessary health issues from happening to women that are only trying to look beautiful and to beauticians that are applying the product.
American Journal of Epidemiology [Journal]. (2012, January 10, 2012). American Journal of Epidemiology. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwr351
FDA Authority over Cosmetics. (2014). Retrieved 03-06-15, from http://www.fda.gov
Health Effects of Hair Relaxers. (2006). Retrieved from Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia: http://www.lesstoxicguide.ca
Hair Salons: Facts about Formaldehyde in Hair Products [Press release]. (2011, September 22, 2011). Retrieved from U.S. Department of Labor: https://www.osha.gov/
Medical Management Guidelines (MMGs): Sodium Hydroxide. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov
The Truth about Hair Relaxers. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.reverseskinaging.com/hairbiology7.html
Tsigonia, A., Lagoudi, A., Chandrinou, S., Linos, A., Evlogias, N., & Alexopoulos, E. C. (2010). Indoor Air in Beauty Salons and Occupation Health Exposure of Cosetologist to Chemical Substances (PMC2819791). Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

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