I now have very short natural hair. Before this current hair choice I had long dreadlocs for over two decades.
It seems like a long time ago now, but I also recall having perms and enduring the long and painful process of having my hair straightened. When I was a child in the 1960s and 70s I remember my mother using the hot comb to straighten her own and my eldest sisters’ hair: it’s a smell you never forget, it’s a process that is as permanent in memory as the burn from the hot comb if anyone moved unexpectedly.
As a child of a migrant family from the Caribbean I was inadvertently taught that in the UK my family’s natural hair was synonymous with ‘bad hair’ and straightened hair was associated with ‘good hair’. This definition was linked to the pressure of time, the ease of maintenance, the access to hair care products, and the shame that was attached to natural African type hair (now categorised as type 4C).
It was through this familial introduction, and the few negative images available in books and posters of the time, that my initial ingrained concept of beauty was created. To me natural hair was associated with negative stereotypes of being unkempt, unprofessional and rough.
Black women in the UK have a complicated relationship with their hair. For decades weaves, wigs and hair extensions have been used for flexibility and ease of maintenance, while natural hair was seen and used as a political statement from the early 1960s: social assumptions were made from visual appearance.
It was almost Hobson’s choice: conform or confront. Either way women have historically been confined with societal hair selections.
Is the desire to change the behaviour and appearance of our hair and skin based on internalised racism which has its roots locked in the nineteenth century?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stated, “Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You’re caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn’t go running with Curt today because you don’t want to sweat out this straightness. You’re always battling to make your hair do what it wasn’t meant to do.”
Relaxed and processed hair has become an integral part of Black British society, so this may seem like a frivolous question, but it is a serious enquiry: is your hairstyle killing you?
Black women have historically had a long association with Black hair care and community, many people will remember sitting at their mother’s feet while getting their hair plaited or styled for school. As community extended the hairdressing salons became sacred Black female spaces, in the same way as barber shops act for the male sections of society. There is both community and big business in hair care.
The first Black millionaire in the US was Madam C J Walker (aka Sarah Breedlove) who amassed her wealth through the creation of hair care products, including the first hair straightening formula, in 1905. Black hair care has remained a multi-million pound section of industry for over a century. It is reported that Black women make up to 80% of the total hair product sales in the UK, and Black women spend six times more on cosmetics than their white counterparts. In 2014 Black women in the UK spent £5.25 billion on hair care products, and crème relaxers accounted for 21% of that figure.
In the US, records show that Black consumers spend nine times more on hair and beauty products than their white contemporaries. The 2018 Nielsen report shows that nearly 86% of hair and beauty products sold in the USA were purchased by minority ethnic groups.
A recent study, relating to the effects on general health of the chemicals in hair care products was published online on 25 April 2018 in the Environmental Research Journal by Dr Jessica Helm et al. This study concludes that “Hair products used by Black women and children contained multiple chemicals associated with endocrine disruption and asthma.” Fragrances, phthalates and parabens are some of the products prevalent in Black hair care and beauty products; parabens have been proven to be carcinogenic, and related to breast cancer and infertility. Previous research in the USA has shown that black women have higher urinary levels of phthalates and parabens than their white counterparts and conclude that the use of skin lighteners and hair relaxers may be contributing factors in the recorded health disparities between the two groups of women.
The full list of products tested in the Silent Spring Institute study can be found here. It was discovered that 80% of the tested products contain high levels of chemicals that ‘disrupt’ the endocrine system, which regulates reproduction, metabolism and affects almost every organ and cell in the body; 84% of the “detected chemicals were not listed on the product label” and the highest number of parabens were found in hair lotions. It must be noted that not all chemicals in hair products are dangerous or damaging to health, what is primarily important to understand is the way the products are used and the frequency of use; there are products available without any of the harmful chemicals highlighted in the Silent Springs study.
The Environmental Research Journal report recommended that personal care products should have improved labelling so that women can make better personal health and beauty choices.
The information in this report suggests that the use of chemicals in Black hair care is dangerously impacting women’s health as the parabens-rich products interfere with natural hormone production. Tola Okagwu, a hair coach, discussed the Silent Springs study with Dr Jessica Helm in an interview by BBC World News. Tola Okagwu has almost a decade of history assisting others to improve the health of their hair, she is also an author of books on the subject. Dr. Jessica Helm concluded that her opinion, after examining the study findings, was that it is best to use caution and reduce exposure to products that cause harm to health. The endocrine disrupting chemicals identified in Dr Helm’s report, have been shown to be associated with increased occurrences of uterine fibroids, infertility, early puberty, and cancer in Black females.
What is the future of the African hair industry if the majority of chemical products are abandoned? #TeamNatural #NaturalHair are two contemporary social media hasttags that are aligned with the growth of natural hair product companies such as Modie Hair Care and Afro Deity. Natural hair care is not unusual, and if the demand for the associated products increases the market will respond. As noted earlier over £5 billion pounds a year is already expended in the Black hair care industry, much of this could be redirected to healthier hair care options for natural hair.
After due consideration of the results of this most recent study I find myself again asking if it is time for more Black British women to consider ditching the use of unregulated and dangerous chemicals on their hair and embrace their natural locs and other hairstyles?
It seems like the healthy option, the real Hobson’s choice.