Interview with Tola Okogwu

For many women product ingredients are not a huge concern when looking for products. Why should this change?

I think we take for granted that the products we use regularly on our hair are safe but there are so many studies out there that suggest otherwise. When you want to lose weight, you know to check the ingredient on your food for anything unhealthy and we need to be more like that with our personal care products. 

In April 2018 I appeared in a BBC interview about a new study that showed that Black women are exposed to dozens of potentially hazardous chemicals through the hair products they use. Chemicals linked to hormone disruption, fibroids, asthma, infertility and even cancer.  There are a few studies, which have looked at the relationship between hair products and several health issues. This includes a study published in 2017 by researchers at Rutgers University, which found a link between breast cancer and the use of hair dyes and hair relaxers in Black women. Also a 2012 a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology that found that the use of relaxers in Black women is associated with fibroids.

Black women are over exposed yet inadequately protected when it comes to hair care products. Over use of braids, weaves and extensions, coupled with bad hair care practices have led to an over-reliance on products. Add in the cultural, historical and societal pressures Black women face when it comes to their hair and the problem is further exacerbated.  In addition, the way Black women use products is unique. Products are used frequently, generously and can be left on for weeks or even months, with continuous reapplication in between. However, there is very little research being done into the cumulative effects and potential risks associated with this method of product use.

The most recent study, conducted in April 2018 by the Silent Spring Institute, showed that 80% of Black hair products tested contain endocrine disrupting and asthma causing chemicals.

The range of products tested included relaxers, hot oil treatments, leave-in conditioners and anti-frizz products. A total of forty-five endocrine disruptors were detected, eleven products were found to contain seven chemicals prohibited in the European Union (EU) or regulated under California’s Proposition 65, with hair relaxers marketed at children containing the highest levels of chemicals prohibited in the EU. Most concerning of all, they found that 84% of chemicals detected were not listed on the product label.

This should alarm Black women all over the world and should be of concern.

What are the key words and ingredients on products women should be careful of?

Most people are already aware of the biggies like parabens, silicone oils and petrolatum. Whilst cosmetic products are relatively well regulated in the EU, the majority of the products used by Black women in the UK are imported, primarily from the US or Asia where regulation and testing isn’t as stringent. The EU Cosmetics Directive prohibits the inclusion of BPA, phthalate, alkylphenol and ethanolamine. However, the 2018 study found several products containing these ingredients, making them unfit for sale in the EU. Yet guess what, you could probably walk into any hair shop and buy it. Fragrance is also another area to be careful of. Fragrance constituents are not always broken down on ingredients list and many are irritants or EDCs.

The Silent Spring Institute has a great factsheet with a full breakdown of the most problematic ingredients they found in Black hair care products.

Do you feel you or those you know have been affected by the hair product ingredients?

This is a tough question because none of the studies can show a direct causality between hair products and certain health issues. However, studies have shown that EDC’s found in personal care products can have a negative impact on our bodies. So at the very least more research needs to be done into Black hair care products because of the unique way in which we use them. I have had issues with fibroids and hormone related infertility as have members of my family. The thought that products I’ve been using all my life could had contributed or played a part is pretty scary.

You have recently spoken about the outcome of the recent study by the Silent Spring institute looking at this issue. What response have you had from the Black community on this?

Overwhelming shock and horror really and an outcry that something needs to be done. I also received a lot of responses from established product makers, health professionals and stylists who have been aware of this issue for a long time and were just glad it was finally getting some much needed coverage. There will of course be those who are too attached to their current lifestyle or favourite products to take much notice.

What would be your advice for Black women suffering from Fibroids etc. Should they be more careful of the products they use in their hair?

Unfortunately there isn’t nearly enough support out there for what can be a very debilitating condition. EDC’s are certainly something fibroid suffers should look into avoiding. Research shows that fibroids are worsened by certain hormones so anything that messes with your hormones is problematic. It goes beyond just hair products though, you need to look at skincare, cleaning and laundry products and even food. These chemicals are everywhere.

Overall what are the main products/brands do you feel should be avoided?

I prefer not to single out individual brands as problematic. I also think it’ s more helpful to highlight brands I’ve found to be less problematic. Brands like Shea Butter Cottage, Root2Tip, Afrocenchix, Almocado, Shea Decadence and Mrs Milli’s are just a few black owned UK brands to start with. Antidote Street is also an online vendor that specialises in showcasing healthier brands. We are currently working on a website that will help sign post these brands and more for concerned consumers.

Tola Okogwu

Author, Journalist and Hair Care Coach

Jan 2019