When women are told to go natural it’s often for the sake of encouraging them to embrace their God-given features and restore the beauty of their hair with products that don’t have harsh chemicals, but rarely do we talk about the health of the women who apply these agents to our hair: beauticians.
If relaxers and perms aren’t good for our hair’s health, it’s not hard to imagine these products could also do harm to stylists who come in contact with them on a daily basis for years and a new report in The Atlantic has confirmed as much. Teni Adewumia, a graduate student at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health who also serves as the environmental-justice program coordinator at the California nonprofit Black Women for Wellness, is working to make beauty salons safer for the women who work in them, training stylists on product safety and healthy practices such as ventilation and using protective equipment. Based on the results of a survey of African American salon workers in Inglewood, CA, it appears Adewumia’s work is long overdue. She told The Atlantic the same health concerns keep arising in beauticians she speaks with: asthma, dermatitis, hair loss, uterine fibroids, and miscarriages. Veteran stylists reportedly told Adewumia they experienced these symptoms when they applied relaxers and other chemical hair straighteners and, as a result, they now prefer working with natural hair.
“When we held focus groups with salon workers, we found these stories of lack of education on chemical exposures and chemical-related health problems,” she told The Atlantic. “Even though they had all gone to beauty school, there was just really no training around what these products could do to your body and to your reproductive system.”
According to Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research at the environmental organization Women’s Voices for the Earth, that’s largely because there isn’t much information on the damage these products can do to begin with.
“The weakness in the data is being able to connect [health impacts] to specific chemicals, because those connections are almost never studied. They’ll look at a chemical at a time, but of course a salon worker is never exposed to just one chemical at a time.”
Because the FDA doesn’t require manufacturers to list the ingredients of professional salon products, the burden of safety falls on consumers and researchers, Adewumia pointed out. But as Scranton shared, it’s not always easy to get stylists to put their health before their profession.
“[Beauticians] really love their jobs, they really want to continue to work their jobs, so they tend not to complain as much, even though their health is definitely suffering.” She suggests stylists’ clients try to educate them by sharing the informational materials they provide on the occupational hazards of salons.
“We often encourage people to take those with them when they go to the salon, and to have that conversation from the point of view of ‘I’m concerned about your health,’ and not, ‘You work a toxic job,’ Com[e] from that standpoint of ‘I want to make sure that you’re healthy because I appreciate the service that you’re doing.’”
Meanwhile, she and other researchers will have to work overtime to close the gender and racial gaps that exist in clinical research when it comes to Black hair care.
“I could find almost no studies on salon workers who either are women of color or work with women of color, and work with the different products that are marketed to women of color—the hair relaxers, certain kinds of dyes, the hair glues for extensions. These are some of the products that seem to contain the most toxic chemicals, and no one has studied them.”
In lieu of this knowledge, I think we all can agree it’s best for everyone to stay away from these products.