Researchers at the Silent Spring Institute, working with epidemiologist Tamarra James-Todd at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, measured the concentrations of chemicals in 18 hair care products geared towards the black community. They found that each product contained 4 to 30 types of chemicals. A lot of the products contained fragrances with phthalates, which have been linked to obesity, increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, pre-term birth, preeclampsia and gestational diabetes, says James-Todd.
When you’re thinking about a lot of these metabolic or reproductive health outcomes, it’s really important to consider why that might be occurring and not simply attribute it to, ‘Oh, there must be some inherent underlying genetic differences,’” she says.
Currently there are no laws that require personal care product companies to disclose all of the substances that are going into their products, due to trademark agreements. There is, however, a movement in the US Senate to enact the Personal Care Product and Safety Act, which would develop a protocol by which products are tested before being placed on store shelves.
“We’re completely relying on the companies to test for the safety of our products,” James-Todd said. “That seems like a conflict of interest. The company is trying to make a profit … [even though] the average consumer thinks that if it’s on the shelf, it’s safe.”
James-Todd became interested in the topic of what chemicals go into hair products while a master’s student at Boston University. She read about a study that compared a magazine advertisement for an anti-aging cream in Ladies’ Home Journal, a publication targeting white women, versus an ad for a placenta-based product — sheep placenta has become a mainstay ingredient in lots of leave-in conditioners — in Essence magazine, which targets black women.
“I’d walk into a black hair supply or hair care store, and see placenta and just wonder, what exactly is that for? Why are people using that?” she said. “Around that same time, an issue of Time magazine had come out, querying why were girls starting their periods earlier and earlier. And somehow that just kind of clicked for me.”
After that, there was a large study done that reported that 60 percent of black girls had reached their period by age 12, compared to about half of that for white girls. This inspired James to do a study of her own. When she was working on her doctoral degree at Columbia University, James-Todd led a study around hair products being used in the greater New York metro area. The results backed up her theory: More girls were using hair oils for a longer period of time and those girls were much more likely to have their period earlier, which can significantly increase the likelihood of breast cancer.
Another study that inspired James was one in which four African American girls, ranging from four months to four years of age, showed they had all been developing breast and pubic hair — all of whom had mothers who were using hair oils and different types of products on them. An independent laboratory test confirmed that there were three types of estrogen found within the collection of products being used. It’s now known that about 50 percent of the products marketed to black women contain these controversial chemicals, compared to only about seven percent of products targeted to white women.
This does not only affect black women and girls, though. Many forget that even though a lot of black men have short hair, they are still using black hair care products.
To listen to the full interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth, click the link.