Toxins found in black hair care products

Thandisizwe Chimurenga | 2/7/2012, 7:36 p.m.

“Take the kinks out of your mind,” intoned Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), “instead of out of your hair.”

As founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association Garvey refused advertisements for products to lighten the skin and straighten the hair of African Americans in The Negro World, the UNIA’s newspaper. That was “back in the day” — between 1918 and 1933 — when the paper had a circulation estimated at close to 200,000 per week.

During the 1960s, Black Power and Black Pride proponents ushered in “naturals” and “afro” hairstyles. In between shouts of “Right On” and “Power to the People,” many of these proponents declared that the hair straightening process was damaging to the brains of African Americans. Though speaking figuratively, from a literal standpoint they may have actually been on to something.

Since the 1970s, there has been little if any media attention or research on the possible connections between African American beauty salons, the personal care products utilized primarily by black women and adverse health outcomes, specifically in the area of reproductive health.

But that has begun to change.

In May of 2011, Dr. Mary Beth Terry and others authored a study, the findings of which showed that African American and African Caribbean women were more likely to be exposed to hormonally active chemicals in hair products.

Terry’s study, “Racial/Ethnic Differences in Hormonally-Active Hair Product Use: A Plausible Risk Factor for Health Disparities,” published in the Journal of Immigrant Health, found that the African American and African Caribbean women surveyed used products that contained chemicals — commonly referred to as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) — linked to various reproductive and birth defects, breast cancer and heart disease.

Most recently, a team of researchers led by Dr. Lauren Wise of Boston University’s Slone Epidemiology Center found strong evidence indicating that African American women’s hair relaxer use increases the risk for uterine fibroid tumors by exposing Black women to various chemicals through scalp lesions and burns from the products.

Fibroids are non-cancerous growths that develop in or just outside a woman’s womb from normal uterine cells that begin to grow abnormally. Although fibroids are fairly common, African American women tend to get them two to three times as often as white women and experience more symptoms from them, such as prolonged and heavy menstrual flow, difficulty conceiving a child, and instances of pain during menses and intercourse.

The researchers followed more than 23,000 pre-menopausal African American women from 1997 to 2009 and published their study, “Hair Relaxer Use and Risk of Uterine Leiomyomata in African-American Women,” online in the Jan. 10, 2012 edition of the Journal of American Epidemiology.

Researchers have also argued that a link exists between the early onset of puberty in black girls and black hair care products. In a study of 300 African American, African Caribbean, Hispanic and white women in New York City, the reported age when these women experienced their first menstrual period (menarche) varied from age 8 to age 19.