The Safety Debate

While products marketed to African-American consumers have been infamous for damaging hair, new alternatives aim to challenge the status quo. But, some warn, there remains plenty of room for improvement.

Multicultural hair products such as relaxers or dyes have long harbored harsh ingredients, causing damage to strands and posing other potential health hazards. But, thankfully, times are changing to meet consumer demand for more natural alternatives and to meet the needs of women who are now embracing their natural textures. Consequently, customers are reaching for more products in the natural category–and they’re willing to pay more for them.

Over the last 20 years, hair products for black women have evolved tremendously–and with them, consumers’ attitudes. “To conform to what society or corporate America thought was appropriate, African-American women in the past wore their hair straight instead of in their natural texture, using more relaxers,” explains Kim Etheredge, co-owner of Mixed Chicks in Canoga Park, California. “Now, these women are embracing their texture. They’re in a position of strength and power; they have a voice, and they’re owning their truths.”

However, when it comes to ingredient safety, getting to the truth can be a tricky task. Here, we check in with voices from various segments of the industry–an environmental watchdog group and two manufacturers making safer alternatives for the African-American market. These insiders offer their takes on the improvements that have been made, how retailers and consumers alike can become better educated and why there still may be a long way to go when it comes to safe formulations for this fast-growing category.

WATCHDOG WARNINGS
In December 2016, the database Skin Deep, from the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group (EWG), added more than 1,100 products marketed to black women. Skin Deep is promoted by EWG as a “free online database and app where Americans can learn what’s in the products they use on their bodies every day.” (Check out its findings at ewg.org/skindeep.) A recent report from the firm noted that “in an analysis of ingredients in 1,177 beauty and personal care products marketed to black women, about one in 12 was ranked highly hazardous on the scoring system of EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database.” Some other findings from the analysis:

  • Less than 25 percent of the products marketed to black women scored low in potentially hazardous ingredients, compared to about 40 percent of the items marketed to the general public.
  • Potential hazards linked to product ingredients include cancer, hormone disruption, developmental and reproductive damage and allergies.
  • The worst-scoring products were hair relaxers, hair color and bleaching products.
  • None of the products analyzed from a range of categories–hair relaxers, hair color and bleaching products, lipsticks, concealers, foundations and sun-protective makeup–were scored as “low hazard.”

“When we analyzed the personal care products marketed specifically to black women in our Skin Deep Cosmetics Data- base between 2015 and 2016, we found that black women have fewer options in the number of less hazardous products marketed to them,” explains Paul Pestano, a senior database analyst for EWG who manages the Skin Deep database and is the co-author of Big Market for Black Cosmetics, but Less-Hazardous Choices Limited. “It’s not so much that these products have more hazardous ingredients; it’s that the proportion of all of the products we reviewed skewed toward the less desirable products. In addition to that, market research suggests that black women are buying and wearing more beauty products, which may lead to more exposure to these potentially harmful ingredients if they used only products marketed to their demographic.”

“We urge women to use every resource available to them to find safer products and learn about the hazardous ingredients present in the cosmetics market.”

—Paul Pestano, senior database analyst, EWG

EWG found several potentially hazardous chemicals and chemical classes in its analysis. Pestano notes that some of the more common ones for retailers and shoppers to avoid are parabens (a class of preservatives that have been linked to hormone disruption), formaldehyde releasers like DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea and imidazolidinyl urea (preservatives that release small amounts of formaldehyde and may cause allergies) and methylisothiazolinone (another preservative that can trigger allergies).

“We don’t mean to imply that products should not be preserved, but as with products that score well in our Skin Deep database, there are better options for product preservation on the market,” Pestano says. “Additionally, these ingredients are not the only ones that people should avoid. There are several other hazardous chemicals that frequently appear in products, so we urge retailers and consumers to visit the Skin Deep database to learn more about potentially hazardous ingredients in products.”

Furthermore, Pestano explained in an EWG report that many of the hair relaxers and dyes used by multicultural consumers are multistep products, which increase the chance of being exposed to hazardous chemicals. “Some of the hair lotions and styling gels contain ingredients of concern like parabens, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives and ‘fragrance,’” Pestano notes. “In fact, half the products we reviewed contained ‘fragrance,’ which factored into the scores in Skin Deep. ‘Fragrance’ is a vague, catchall term for about 3,000 ingredients found in many personal care products–and, unless the specific ingredients in a fragrance mixture are listed on product packaging, consumers can’t know if any of the chemicals are linked to endocrine disruption, allergens or other health issues.”

The good news? Pestano stresses that better alternatives do exist, and EWG’s database offers a wealth of up-to-date information on products and their ingredients. Because consumers are craving healthier alternatives, it’s a smart idea for retailers to do their own research and offer those products to meet demand.

“Consumers have become more aware of natural and healthier options that actually nourish the hair and scalp.”

—Shelley Davis, founder and owner, Kinky-Curly

“We urge women to use every resource available to them to find safer products and learn about the hazardous ingredients present in the cosmetics market,” Pestano concludes. “We understand that the beauty products someone uses are a personal choice, and that certain products or ingredients are unavoidable. In those cases, we recommend that they consider looking at the rest of their products to see where they can lighten their overall chemical burden.”

MANUFACTURERS MAKING PROGRESS
While groups like EWG urge consumers and retailers to become educated about the products they use and sell, some manufacturers are taking steps in the right direction to fulfill customers’ cravings for safer formulations. “I think many products marketed toward black women have now moved away from problematic ingredients such as petroleum, placenta hair grease and hormone growth creams,” notes Shelley Davis, founder and owner of Kinky-Curly Hair Care in Los Angeles. “Consumers have become more aware of natural and healthier options that actually nourish the hair and scalp. I believe this is a direct result of consumers who desire to live a healthier lifestyle. The next natural step is to incorporate healthy hair- and skincare choices.”

Indeed, there is confusion surrounding the term “natural” itself when it comes to ingredients and formulas. For Etheredge, “natural” simply refers to the way African-American women are wearing their hair–a movement that’s no phase or fad, but a revolution that will henceforth influence everything manufacturers make. “Before, there weren’t products available to style hair natural; but now, in 2018, multicultural is the fastest-growing category and is continuing to grow,” Etheredge explains. “There are so many different products to choose from, and ingredients are important because of the damage caused by relaxers in the past. Yes, some women need to relax their hair, but with damage and breakage, they were looking for alternatives. And so many women today are shying away from harsh chemicals in general.”

Though her own Mixed Chicks products are often showcased in the “natural” section of stores, she believes that in that context, the word simply refers to avoiding lye or chemicals that alter the structure of hair–and her own company has never made “natural” claims. Instead, when creating products, the minds behind Mixed Chicks simply look closely at common ingredients used in the industry and try to find the safest ones possible. For example, Etheredge notes that parabens, which kill mold, yeast and bacteria, were never shown to cause cancer when used in hair products, though they had been linked with cancer as an ingredient in deodorants. “Years ago, no other preservative had been tested, but we looked for an alternative and became paraben-free,” Etheredge says. “Our focus has always been a healthier lifestyle, so we use a lot of essential oils, for example. However, the industry always changes. Here in California, with Prop 65, you never know what will pop up, and of course we want to comply with regulations.”

“Before, there weren’t products available to style hair natural—but in 2018, multicultural is the fastest growing category and continuing to grow.”

—Kim Etheredge, co-owner, Mixed Chicks

Meanwhile, Davis points to other ingredients that may raise red flags for consumers: Sodium laurel sulfate, commonly found in shampoo, can cause drying and strip the hair shaft of needed moisture. The petroleum commonly found in pomades and hair grease does not absorb into the hair shaft, simply sitting on top of the hair where it attracts and collects dust. “When looking for better alternatives, consumers should look for products with natural oils such as olive oil, jojoba oil, coconut oil and argan oil,” Davis suggests. “Shea butter is also a great alternative to petroleum-based pomades. We believe that in order for your hair to thrive and flourish, you must care for it with natural ingredients that do not cause buildup or suffocate the scalp–ingredients that moisturize and strengthen the hair shaft. We stay away from ingredients that cause dry- ness and breakage through long-term use.”

Ultimately, manufacturers and watchdog groups alike agree that education is paramount–for both consumers and beauty store owners. For example, Davis encourages consumers and retailers to read ingredient lists on the backs of products and counsels that consumers should pay attention to their hair and see what it responds favorably to.

Etheredge agrees that education makes the difference, advising stores to take advantage of distributors’ trade shows as well as in-store educational opportunities provided by manufacturers for staff members and salespeople. “It’s impossible to know everything, but the more educated the sales staff is, the more they can have a sense of products in different categories, which ultimately helps with sales,” Etheredge explains. “And, because not all of us in the multicultural category have the same texture or hair woes, it’s important to get educated so you can give customers good advice.”

Etheredge shares additional tips and tricks for ramping up in-store instruction–and establishing yourself as a must-visit location for increasingly discerning customers: Hold seminars, invite brands to hold in-store seminars, offer samples and make sure your staff is knowledgeable. Ultimately, you’ll reap the benefits of fewer returns and more recurring customers. “The greatest benefit of beauty supply stores is that customers can talk to a person versus shopping online and wondering if the product is right for them,” Etheredge says. “People love demos, and retail outlets have an advantage because they can give answers to questions on the spot. Everything is not for everybody, and that’s the beauty. For women who do want to wear their hair natural, they now have many choices. The industry has paid attention, and as trends change, we have the opportunity to display those changes in the store through products, while consumers can stay on top of trends and find different choices for their different needs.”

[Photo by Westend61, gettyimages.com]