Some Black hair products may harm users’ health

Hair products sometimes used by Black women may contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals linked with serious health issues, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Tamarra James-Todd.

Straight long hair has often been held up as the standard of beauty, particularly in American culture, noted James-Todd, Mark and Catherine Winkler Assistant Professor of Environmental Reproductive and Perinatal Epidemiology, in an interview on the public radio show “Living on Earth” broadcast the week of September 4, 2020. To try to adhere to that standard of beauty, she said, some Black women use a variety of products, including hair relaxers, pressing combs, hair oils, moisturizers, lotions, leave-in conditioners, and gels.

Yet studies conducted by James-Todd and other researchers have shown that some of these products, which Black women may use daily, contain parabens, phthalates, and other chemicals that are known to be endocrine disruptors. “About 50 percent of products advertised to Black women contain these types of chemicals, compared to maybe only 7 percent that are advertised to white women,” said James-Todd.

She noted that phthalates are linked to obesity and an increased risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease, as well as preterm birth, preeclampsia, and gestational diabetes in pregnant women. There are also associations between some of the endocrine-disrupting chemicals and breast cancer and other cancers.

As a doctoral student at Columbia University, James-Todd conducted a study in which participants were asked what types of hair products they were using. The study found that young girls who were using hair oils for a longer period of time and more frequently had a significantly higher risk of starting their periods earlier than girls who had never used hair oils. “Each year earlier that a girl starts her period, it’s an increased risk for developing breast cancer,” said James-Todd.

She noted that there is a limited selection of chemical-free products for Black hair on the market, and where they do exist they are often not widely available and can be expensive. “I think that there need to be more products introduced on the market, with recognition that these products are important to African-American women and that they do have purchasing power,” said James-Todd. “This is a very large industry.”

Listen to the “Living on Earth” episode: Toxic Black Hair Products