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A Gentler Way To Relax Hair
Women Push for Products That Are Less Caustic

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Julia Coney, 36, can still remember her first chemical burn. She was a teenager, and she'd been getting her hair straightened since she was 8. In the early days, her mother used to take her to a hairdresser, who would gently spread a relaxer on her thick hair to tame its tight coils. The sodium-hydroxide-based paste was a creamy white color and had a harsh smell, but it left Coney with fine, silky, straight hair that was easy to manage.

The burns came later, when Coney went to sloppy hair stylists or disobeyed the cardinal rules of relaxing, which include not scratching the scalp or washing the hair too soon before the application. During those teenage years, when vanity often trumped safety, Coney once got a burn so bad that it left the area behind her right ear raw. "I was like, 'Why am I doing this?' " she recalled.

With a pH of about 12, similar to that of household ammonia or soap, chemical relaxers are among the most caustic cosmetics products on the market, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental organization. Along with hair dyes, hair straighteners are the source of more complaints to the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Cosmetics and Colors than almost any other product.

Though millions of African American women have used relaxers, often for many years, there is a growing push among consumer advocates and some consumers for gentler products that are no less effective.

Many More Choices

Coney, a District resident, at times has wondered about the broad health effects of hair relaxers. But most of all she worried about the health of her hair, which became dry and brittle and began to fall out -- the result, she suspected, of years of relaxing and creating adventurous hair styles, including short, spiky dos and an asymmetrical bob. At 25, she stopped relaxing her hair altogether and wore it closely cropped for about a decade. When Coney, who now runs a beauty blog called All About the Pretty, recently decided to grow and straighten her hair again, she was wary of the harsh relaxers and happy to find a shelf full of straightening products being marketed as gentler, plant-based or organic.

In recent years, some manufacturers, including Colomer USA, the maker of Creme of Nature, have been listing at least one "certified organic ingredient" in their products, including their sodium-based relaxers. The French company Phyto markets its PhytoSpecific line as a "non chemical relaxing system" and charges about $60 for a tub of its straightener, more than triple the price of a traditional relaxer. According to the company, the Phyto relaxer uses a substance called guanidine carbonate derived from mushroom salts as its straightening agent.

"I think it's great for black women. Now there are so many choices," Coney said.

Coney, who applies her own relaxer, said she is aware that all products labeled "natural" or "organic" are not necessarily much gentler than other ones. Even the hair relaxers that incorporate plant products, such as Phyto's guanidine carbonate, contain naturally occurring chemicals strong enough to break her hair's tightly coiled bond and make it straight. But she said she has noticed with the Phyto relaxer "a difference in the smell, which isn't as chemical-ly."

"I'm sure some of the chemicals aren't the best for your body, but I think there are so many things that we do that are not good for us," Coney said. "I know that watching TV is probably killing my brain cells, but I still do it. There are things that aren't good for you in the hair products, but there are also things in the drinking water. . . . You can't worry about everything."

The emphasis on natural ingredients in hair products is growing. However, there are no regulatory standards for labeling a personal care product "organic" or "natural," a term that is even more ambiguous.

"It's a trend that's been under way for a number of years, to be more natural and green and sustainable and all the things that seem to be popular now, and the move is mostly driven by consumer demand," said John Bailey, chief scientist at the Personal Care Products Council, a trade group. "The cosmetics industry has always been good at responding to what consumers want."

Cosmetics are not required to undergo the same sort of approval process as drugs before going on the market, and the FDA takes action only after safety or mislabeling issues surface or are reported by consumers. Nonetheless, Bailey pointed out that "the products on the market are required by the FDA to be safe, whether they be more in the natural ingredient line or more traditional. I don't see why consumers should be alarmed based on whether it is natural or traditional."

Consumers, Beware

Hair relaxers generally fall into two categories: lye and no-lye. Lye relaxers contain sodium hydroxide, which is also used to make soap and strip paint. Most no-lye relaxers contain calcium hydroxide, which is also used to treat water and sewage, and guanidine carbonate, which is also used for hair removal.

When researchers at the Boston University-based Black Women's Health study were looking to understand why black women younger than 45 have a higher incidence of breast cancer than white women, they looked to use of chemical hair relaxers for a possible explanation. But they found no evidence to support that.

The researchers found that between 1997 and 2003, 574 women of the more than 48,000 in the study developed breast cancer, but there was no correlation between relaxer use and the illness. Women who had never used the products were found to have the same breast cancer risk as those who did.

Even as the ingredient lists change for some of the straighteners and other hair and body products, and manufacturers emphasize the words "organic" and "natural," Stacy Malkan of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics said consumers should beware.

"We have seen companies reformulating products as natural products, but it is very confusing because there are no legal standards as far as using the words 'organic' or 'natural' in marketing hair and body products," Malkan said. "You have to do your own research."

Toya Smith Marshall, 30, who used chemical relaxers for 18 years, said she has learned that lesson. She no longer chemically straightens her hair; since she began styling it herself, she has begun reading labels closely to find out exactly what she is putting onto her scalp.

"I don't fall prey to the labeling, because in order to straighten your hair, [the product] has to break your hair down," she said. "That's why it stings and burns. There's no way to make that healthy for you."

Smith Marshall, who lives in Baltimore and writes about her hair and cosmetics use on her blog Life of a Lady Bug, said she has learned that her hair does not respond well to products containing alcohols, sodium lauryl or sulfates.

Driven by savvy consumers such as Smith Marshall, the shifts in hair and body products seem to be continuing. Earlier this year, Whole Foods came out with a "Premium Body Care" seal to promote products that do not contain any of 300 ingredients that a group of chemists and body care experts working with the grocer determined could have negative health effects and/or cause harm to the environment. The list of unacceptable components includes many found in traditional straightening products, such as parabens, polypropylene and polyethylene glycols, sodium lauryl and laureth sulfates.

A Personal Choice

At Salon Revive, near the District's U Street corridor, owners Hiwot Aberra and Yodit Girma try to direct customers to plant-based products such as Aveda's hair care line. But they also offer traditional sodium-based relaxers. Customers who hesitate to switch over usually worry that the natural product will not be effective, Aberra said.

"I've seen hair that has been absolutely destroyed by a relaxer," she said. "It's the industry we're in, [so] we don't refuse service to customers who want [traditional] relaxers, but we give them the alternative options first."

Depending on the client's hair, she recommends straightening by using heat from blow dryers and flat irons, relying less on chemical relaxers.

Coney said she likes wearing her hair straight and plans to continue relaxing it, though her boyfriend sometimes nags her about using chemical straighteners. He would rather she switch to 100 percent natural products, but she sees it as a personal preference.

"I probably wouldn't relax my child's hair," she said, "not because of the chemicals, but because I don't want to hear [my boyfriend's] mouth."

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