My Issue with Black Women for Wellness' Report on Toxic Ingredients in Hair Products

Sunday, March 20, 2016

On Friday, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I noticed someone had posted an article from Madame Noire. The article was on a recent report from Black Women for Wellness (BWW), which detailed how toxic, chemicals in hair products marketed to black women are making black women sick. As a blogger, I understand how easy it is for us to spread misinformation, so I've made a commitment to try to give my readers science-based information when it comes to discussing hair products, nutrition, and health. So the Madame Noire article really peaked my interest when I noticed claims of "chemicals" causing health issues. Instead of taking Madame Noire's article at face value, I decided to read the BWW's report from beginning to end...and I have some concerns.

Ingredients in Cosmetics Are Rarely Researched
"However, many of the products marketed to and used by Black women are rarely researched for toxic health consequences; in the rare cases that they are, Black hair products are found to be some of the most toxic beauty products on the market." This sentence in the first paragraph of the report is egregiously incorrect. Let me repeat this, this statement is false. There are a wide range of scientific journals that are devoted to determining if ingredients used in cosmetics are safe, including but not limited to the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, Journal of Cosmetics, Dermatological Science and Applications, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology, Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, Critical Reviews in Toxicology, and Food and Chemical Toxicology.

Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology even has a public review of the safety of cosmetics ingredients in Safety assessment of personal care products/cosmetics and their ingredients. The review references multiple studies - and by multiple, I really mean over 30 - that were conducted to determine the safety of cosmetic ingredients.

The report listed parabens, a common ingredient found in many cosmetics - like hair products, soaps, deodorant, lotions and more - and used as a preservative to prevent the growth of bacteria. It is commonly misreported that parabens can cause cancer due to a 2004 study that found that parabens were in the breast tissue of women with breast cancer. As the American Cancer Society points out, the study didn't determine if parabens caused or contributed to breast cancer development; that while parabens contain weak estrogen-like properties, estrogen from the body is hundreds of thousands times stronger and as such, are much more likely to play a role in cancer development; and the source of the parabens were unknown. But this isn't the only study/ review on parabens, in fact, a quick search in Google Scholar, and there are over 11,000 results. Do a search on a few other ingredients that the report listed, and you will find similar results. The fact of the matter is there is a lot of research on cosmetic ingredients.

(If you stopped reading at this point, while rolling your eyes saying "well if there are parabens present in the breast tissue of women with cancer, then they definitely cause cancer," keep reading. Otherwise, I recommend removing blueberries out of your diet, they contain parabens too.)

Products Marketed to Black Women are the Most Toxic
I already know I was one of a few people that actual read this report - and this includes the journalist at Madame Noire - because if they did, they would've side-eye the short list of products listed in the report. The report references the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Skin Deep database, which works to report "chemicals" in beauty products. (Note: The EWG is not backed by a majority of scientists. They just believe that an organic lifestyle is the right way to go and will refuse to report any science that goes against their beliefs, and will even report misinformation as fact. Don't believe me? Here, here, and here you go.) The report listed 43 black hair products, but only 7 had an score from the Skin Deep database. Going solely from that list of seven, I compared Motions at Home Lavish Conditioning Shampoo to Nexxus Therappe Luxurious Moisturizing Shampoo. I used Nexxus because they actively market to white woman, but the product was commonly used by stylists in the report. The results confirm what I've been saying for years. Products marketed to black women are solely that, marketing. The two shampoos share a few of the "chemicals" that the report claims are bad. A quick search of other products in different brands, like Garnier, Herbal Essence, and Suave, and you can see that the same ingredients were continually listed.

There was another thing I noticed. The ingredients listed in the report for Motions aren't the current formula. I don't think this was intentional, the same ingredients are listed in the EWG's database. But the current formula removed parabens, while also adding shea butter, coconut oil, and honey. Again, I don't think this was intentional, but I will say it's one reason to always go to an original source before going to a secondary source.

Ignoring More Prevalent Issues that Affect the Health of Black Women
Throughout the report there are claims that the current health of black women are the result of "chemicals" in our hair products. Some of the biggest health ailments listed are cancer, specifically breast cancer, and obesity. Here's the issue with these claims, the prevalence of obesity in the black American population has been studied and research, ad nauseum. This has everything to do with how and what we eat, not what we're using on our hair and scalp. Black american adults are 1.5 times as likely to be obese compared with White adults. There are a few reasons for this: lack of access to supermarkets and grocery stores, cultural foods are low in nutrition and high in fat, and lack of physical activity.

There was also the claim about breast cancer, specifically that, while black women are less likely to get breast cancer than white women, "black women are far more likely to die from breast cancer, often having more aggressive cancers or being diagnosed in later stages." Factors that affect breast cancer risk are breast density, family history of breast, ovarian and/ or prostate cancer, inherited gene mutations, body weight and weight gain, alcohol use, and hyperplasia. Early breast cancer detection greatly impacts survival rate, and mammogram screenings are the most common way to detect abnormalities in the breast tissue. While black woman are getting screenings as often as white women (though there are still gaps in access to health care and screenings), "access to follow-up care after an abnormal mammogram may explain part of the survival gap between African-American and white women."

Because of these significantly more important factors, we can't just say that the ingredients in hair products are making us sick. We would first need to determine if healthy black women - eating healthy foods, physically active, low stress, getting preventative care - that are using natural hair products, have the same health ailments as black women who aren't healthy.

(Note: Black Women for Wellness does have programs to educate black women on nutrition and health, so they are addressing those issues).

Natural Equals Better/ Safer
There's a very toxic belief that natural equals better, especially in the natural hair community. It is dangerous. A couple of months ago, Alikay Naturals was in the news for having high amounts of lead in their Bentonite Me Baby clay. Lead is a natural contaminant - meaning it's natural and organic - found in the Earth's crust.While the FDA does not subject cosmetics to pre-market approval (which is both a "blessing" and a "curse" in that smaller companies and individuals are able to sell their cosmetics), it potentially allows unsafe cosmetics on the market. In the case of Bentonite Me Baby, this was lead. (Note: The FDA does require that all ingredients in cosmetics need to be listed. They also send warning letters to companies that violate regulations, as well as sue companies who refuse to comply. If you have any concerns about a cosmetic you are using, you can file a compliant.)

Lead may be an extreme case for "natural doesn't equal safer or better", but what if I told you that parabens are found naturally in fruits and vegetables, such blueberries, strawberries, carrots, and olives. In fact, many natural and organic cosmetic companies include Japanese Honeysuckle Extract - a natural and organic paraben - to preserve their products. In 2012, Shea Moisture came under scrutiny for having Japanese Honeysuckle Extract in their products. Fellow natural hair blogger, and scientist, Natural Haven discussed this in a blog post noting that parabens are safe, "consumers should really educate themselves more" and that "For a product to be able to sit on a shelf for several months, it needs an effective preservative. Paraben free lines tend to use things like alcohols, urea and formaldehyde releasers, or as we now know [parahydroxybenzoic acid]."

We need to stop believing that natural equals better and safer, and even at the most simple level, many people can still be allergic or have dermatological reactions to natural products. As noted in Safety assessment of personal care products/cosmetics and their ingredients, " absence of evidence of a known health risk is not equal to evidence of absence of a health risk when such ingredients are applied under different conditions of use." All ingredients, regardless of origin, should be subject to toxicology and safety evaluations as.

And if you want to know why I've been using "chemicals" in quotations, it's because most people don't know that chemicals are naturally occurring. In fact, water is one of the most common chemicals, and one that we would never consider unsafe.

Lack of Authority on Subject Matter
Not everyone is an authority on every subject, and this has never been more prevalent than in the digital age. Anyone can write on any topic, as if they have had years of education and experience. Because this is important to me, and because of my lack of expertise on the subject matter, I will be reaching out to cosmetic scientists and toxicologists to speak with them on the safety of ingredients in cosmetics. The report had mostly women from a psychology, environmental, and occupational safety and health backgrounds. This report, while written by very educated and intelligent women, is written without an expert in cosmetic science or toxicology. When that voice is missing, the report moved from a potentially valid critique of the cosmetic industry to a subjective claim that deemed "natural" better than "chemical."

I have no doubt that Black Women for Wellness has good intentions with their report, but I honestly think that this report does more harm than good. I think that consumers should know what's in their products, but that they should also understand the science behind them, not just something they quickly see on Google, and take it as fact. I also would like consumers to know that natural doesn't automatically equal better or safer, and to always use caution when using a new product or ingredient, regardless of origin.

I recommend that everyone take the time to really read through the report. I think this is the most important way to form your own opinion, but also consider using a level of skepticism, as well.

(Note: I analyzed the report from the aspect of a consumer. The report also discusses occupational hazards that hair stylists face. I didn't address them; I have stepped foot in a salon since I went natural, and my personal experiences are very poor.)

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  1. "Not everyone is an authority on every subject, and this has never been more prevalent than in the digital age. Anyone can write on any topic, as if they have had years of education and experience. Because this is important to me, and because of my lack of expertise on the subject matter, I will be reaching out to cosmetic scientists and toxicologists to speak with them on the safety of ingredients in cosmetics."

    Well, that's good because your analysis of this article reflects your lack of expertise significantly. The fact that you can find some chemicals in scientific journals is by no means evidence that the chemicals in hair products are researched and tested thoroughly. It shows you have a serious misunderstanding for the quantity and types of chemicals that go into scientific journals. You also clearly aren't familiar with the process of getting articles into journals, the reputation of those journals, and who funds research. Did you bother to look at who funded those articles? Are you aware of how many companies hire scientists/consultants to do research on their behalf in order to "prove" safety?

    Also, your comparison of parabens to blueberries is simply unfounded. It's an issue of dose. Blueberries may contain parabens, but at what concentration in comparison to hair products? Do you know that answer or are you spouting irrelevant evidence to your case? Do you know the threshold dose for a response? Was the study tested on a mouse? Or do you have human studies (of the ethical, retrospective variety) to substantiate your comparison to blueberries? Did you know that betacarotene, found in orange foods, is toxic if you eat too much?

    The article's point is that in the concentrations to which Black women are exposed there is a potential threat to human health. They know this because THEY'RE EDUCATED IN THE SUBJECT MATTER. You should probably stick to your area of expertise here on out rather than going out of your way to attribute doubt to an article that encourages people to dig a bit deeper. It's great that the article has inspired you to do that yourself, but I suggest you ask the scientists before you write any sort of critical review as you did above.


    1. No one on their team is a chemical/ cosmetic scientist or toxicologist. I mentioned that (they have all their authors and consultants listed in the report), so that level of science is missing. I will actually be reaching out to chemical/ cosmetic scientists, as well as toxicologists, to speak with them and post it to my blog. Hopefully, you will take the time to reach those and maybe it will change your opinion.

      In addition, the report itself contains references to, I guess it's ok for them, but bad when I do it...

      Also BBW is "industry-funded," they're just part of an industry that you support (organic, "natural," anti-chemical). That's fine, nothing wrong with that. But saying that something is industry funded, instead of actually discussing the argument, is a logical fallacy. It's a bit of red herring and doesn't actually discuss the points made in the article.

      If you want to learn more about parabens from someone who isn't industry funded, Natural Haven has a great article on it.