Two steps forward, one back

It seems that at least annually since 2011, something incites me to blog about hair products. Those posts have included titles such as In the news again, Never say never, and Let’s put it to bed. For years safety and health advocates have worked tirelessly to attempt to protect stylists and the public from hair products that contain hazardous and toxic chemicals. I continue to be disappointed not to be able to craft a headline screaming, “It’s gone,” or “Our work is done.” When we first raised the issue of hair straightening products containing formaldehyde in 2010, collaboratively with our partner Oregon OSHA, I would never have imagined I’d still blog about it in 2019.

While our United States’ regulations still lack the teeth exhibited in other countries preventing personal care products from containing certain chemicals (e.g., EU restricts methylene glycol/formaldehyde to < 0.2% yet still requires a warning label),  there is good news. Last month California became the first state to ban discrimination based on natural hairstyles with passage of Senate Bill No. 188 (CROWN Act: Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair). More recently, New York’s Assembly A07797, prohibits race discrimination based on natural hair or hairstyles. As simply stated, by the NYC Commission on Human Rights, “the New York City Human Rights Law protects the rights of New Yorkers to maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities.”

While the product our Institute was most focused on earlier this decade has been popular for all hair types, although possibly more often used on white than black hair, the most commonly used straighteners and relaxers include active ingredients that have potential harmful exposure concerns. I am not expert on either of these new laws, and look forward to learning more. These bills are powerful messages to protect employees and students from discrimination. They also lead the way for continued conversations about “beauty and chemicals.” I appreciate this quote from my colleague, Teniope Adewumi-Gunn:

“While it’s unfortunate that we need to tackle this issue through legislation, these laws are a great step forward. The status quo is that we as Black women can’t wear our hair the way that we would like to—or in fact, the way that it literally grows out of our heads—because we could be kicked out of school, or passed over for a job. It’s egregious that one of the few options that we are left with is to straighten our hair with chemical products that can potentially have serious health implications. So this is really a multi-faceted issue, affecting both our physical health through the need for these products, and our mental health through the discrimination and need to conform to Euro-centric beauty norms.”
— Teniope Adewumi-Gunn, PhD

And yet, I sigh. As I walked by a local salon just today, a sign advertising “Brazilian Blowout” enticed me inside. Since the stylist was alone, I began a conversation. She gladly showed me a safety data sheet to confirm what I already knew, the product contains 3-7% methylene glycol, the liquid that, when heated, produces formaldehyde gas. Further into our conversation I was told that she was told it doesn’t have the formaldehyde risk anymore, and the eye irritation she gets when she flatirons it during use with a client is ” from a fragrance in the formula.” I shared with her a bit about what I know, and left her with my email address in case she wants more information. I did feel obligated to share what any practicing industrial hygienist also knows: the (Oregon) OSHA formaldehyde regulation applies to all gas, vapor and liquids forms and to this concentration – just as it did back in 2010. Perhaps you slept through our work of 2010-2011? Catch up here.

I still have hope that next year’s hair blog might have some positive news about reduction of hazardous chemicals used in personal care products. Do you have positive stories? We’d love to hear them.

Related resources:

Oregon and the Workplace: Industrial hygiene and green chemistry
Emerging issues: Formaldehyde in hair products

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