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Hair straightening products contain potentially toxic mix

Ronnie Cohen/Reuters Health | 8/2/2018, 6 a.m.
Hair products used primarily by African-American women and children contain a host of hazardous chemicals, a new study shows.
Dr. Tamarra James-Todd

Hair products used primarily by African-American women and children contain a host of hazardous chemicals, a new study shows.

The findings could explain at least in part why African-American women go through puberty earlier and suffer from higher rates of asthma and reproductive diseases than other groups.

“The truly scary thing about this is that women are being exposed to these chemicals weekly, and sometimes even daily, without their knowledge because they assume a product is safe simply because it is on the shelf,” epidemiologist Tamarra James-Todd said after reviewing the report in Environmental Research.

Dr. James-Todd, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, supplied product information for the study but was not directly involved with the research.

Investigators tested 18 hair products — from hot-oil treatments to anti-frizz polishes, relaxers and conditioners — looking for the presence of chemicals called endocrine disrupters. These chemicals, which interfere with the way the body produces hormones, have been linked to reproductive disorders, birth defects, asthma and cancer.

Altogether, the researchers looked for 66 different endocrine disrupters. Each of the tested hair products contained at least four and as many as 30, said lead author Jessica Helm, a research fellow at the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass.

Eleven products contained chemicals prohibited in the European Union or flagged as a potential problem in California. The two hair products marketed to children contained the highest levels of banned or regulated chemicals, Dr. Helm said in a phone interview.

The vast majority of the chemicals discovered in the hair products — 84 percent — were not listed on the product labels.

“It’s widely known the U.S. is doing an inadequate job of testing and regulating chemicals,” Dr. Helm said. Companies are allowed to omit chemicals from product labels if they are fragrances and if they are considered a secret ingredient in the product formula.

“In many ways, we are protecting companies’ rights to privacy over consumers’ health, which seems backwards and can be particularly harmful to high-risk and vulnerable populations,” Dr. James-Todd said in an email.

Janette Robinson Flint, executive director of Black Women for Wellness in Los Angeles, said the study’s findings are proof that she and other African-American women “can’t shop our way out of this problem.”

“We also need manufacturers to disclose what’s in the products,” said Ms. Flint, who was not involved in the study. “We need some regulatory body to regulate these manufacturers so they don’t let them get away with not disclosing what is in the product and then using toxic products.”

She called the study long overdue. Researchers have known for years that black girls enter puberty earlier than other girls and that black women have disproportionately higher rates of deadly reproductive cancers, she said. Yet little prior research has been done.

“It’s as if our lives do not matter,” she said in a phone interview.

Dr. Helm pointed out that she and her team studied only 66 chemicals, just a fraction of those in hair products. There’s a “universe of other products we really don’t know much about,” she said.