Embracing Natural Beauty: A Journey Away from Chemical Relaxers

Last Updated: June 13, 2024By

 

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It was right around Christmas, and little Gloria Moraa, eight years old, sat patiently while her aunt coated her curls with chemicals, aiming to straighten every strand. “Back then, everyone wanted the same hairstyle for the holidays, and relaxers were all the rage,” reminisces Moraa, now 28, residing in Nairobi, Kenya.

No longer does she subject her hair to the harsh chemicals, fearing it might lead to thinning. But throughout the years, Moraa experimented with nearly every relaxer on the market, all in pursuit of that silky smoothness. The ingredients were a mystery to her.

“I never had the time or know-how to figure out what those ingredients could do,” admits Moraa. “I’m just a regular consumer, not a scientist.”

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But now, doubts are surfacing about the safety of these products’ ingredients.

In October 2022, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a study indicating that women using hair relaxers more than four times annually faced a heightened risk of uterine cancer. This study marked a turning point in the US, adding to over a decade of scientific findings linking women’s exposure to certain chemicals with the development of uterine and breast tumors.

These chemicals, known as endocrine disruptors, wreak havoc on hormones regulating mood, appetite, cognitive development, and reproductive health.

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While many African American women in the US are turning away from chemical straighteners, with thousands filing lawsuits against manufacturers post-study, the sales of such products are soaring in some African nations.

Tunisia, Kenya, and Cameroon witnessed significant growth in sales of perms and relaxers from 2017 to 2022, according to Euromonitor, a market research firm. Sales in Tunisia and Kenya surged by 10% over five years, with South Africa and Nigeria following suit.

##Embracing Natural Beauty: A Journey Away from Chemical Relaxers##

 

“Hair relaxers are still as popular as ever,” affirms Joseph Kiemo, proprietor of Kiemo Hair and Beauty Studio in Nairobi.

Africa presents a lucrative market for the cosmetics industry, given its youthful and rapidly expanding population, burgeoning middle class, and a burgeoning community of millionaires. Consequently, hair and skin product lines tailored to meet consumer demands are proliferating.

The global hair relaxer market is projected to escalate from $718 million in 2021 to $854 million annually by 2028.

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Notably, the companies facing lawsuits in the US produce some of Africa’s most sought-after brands. For instance, Dark & Lovely, a brand under L’Oréal, dominates the relaxer market in Nigeria. Ors Olive Oil No-Lye Relaxer, manufactured by Namaste Laboratories, closely follows. In Kenya, TCB Naturals, owned by Godrej Consumer Products, a self-proclaimed leader in hair care for women of African descent, is a top contender. All these brands find mention in the ongoing legal battle.

For many black women, chemically straightening their hair is a societal norm deeply rooted in Eurocentric beauty standards, stemming from colonialism and racism. However, manageability and social acceptance also play significant roles in their decision-making.

“We acknowledge that black women resort to hair relaxers for various reasons, some under their control and some not,” remarks Seyi Falodun-Liburd, a strategist at Level Up, a UK-based gender justice organization. “For us, it’s not about condemning any black woman for her choices.”

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Falodun-Liburd stresses the importance of governmental and corporate accountability, advocating for mandatory disclosure of potential health hazards and the banning of harmful ingredients.

In May 2022, Level Up published findings from what it claims to be the first research on black women’s experiences with relaxers in the UK, surveying over 1,000 women. Unsurprisingly, 77% of the respondents were oblivious to the heightened cancer risk associated with long-term relaxer use.

“I believe most black women wouldn’t knowingly expose themselves to harmful substances, but the lack of awareness is alarming,” comments Ikamara Larasi, a Level Up campaigner.

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Mary Cunningham from New York City is among the multitude suing haircare companies. Her daughter, Telichia Cunningham-Morris, succumbed to uterine cancer at 50 in June 2021. Cunningham-Morris began chemically straightening her hair at a tender age, a practice initiated by her mother for convenience.

Cunningham-Morris used relaxers for decades until six years ago, when she and her sister decided to embrace their natural hair.

Cunningham, now 75, and her younger daughter blame endocrine disruptors in relaxers for Cunningham-Morris’s demise, citing their own medical issues, including hysterectomies, allegedly caused by these chemicals.

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“It’s becoming clear to me now that our ongoing health issues stemmed from those relaxers,” muses Cunningham, reflecting on the toll her family paid for the sake of straight hair.

##Embracing Natural Beauty: A Journey Away from Chemical Relaxers##

Scientists highlight formaldehyde, a carcinogen, along with phthalates, parabens, and Bisphenol A, as the most troubling ingredients in relaxers.

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Formaldehyde, in particular, is a known carcinogen, while phthalates, parabens, and Bisphenol A are suspected or confirmed endocrine disruptors.

A scrutiny of products sold in Africa uncovered the presence of parabens. Phthalates, commonly found in fragrances, were not listed as separate ingredients.

Regulations concerning these chemicals vary worldwide. While the EU has banned some endocrine disruptors in cosmetics and proposed further restrictions, the US is deliberating on banning formaldehyde in relaxers. Nigeria has already cautioned against the use of hair products containing formaldehyde.

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Despite governments mandating ingredient disclosure on product labels, health experts argue that this doesn’t guarantee consumer comprehension of potential risks.

“The more we educate people about these chemicals and their adverse effects, the better equipped they’ll be to make informed choices,” asserts Prof. Adana Llanos, an epidemiologist at Columbia University.

Following the publication of the NIH study, American women initiated lawsuits against relaxer manufacturers, alleging failure to warn consumers of health risks. In November, a federal judge ruled in favor of multi-jurisdictional litigation against companies like L’Oréal, Revlon, Namaste, and Godrej, paving the way for a colossal legal showdown.

While the companies refute the allegations, insisting on the safety of their products, the debate continues.

In Lagos, Nigeria, hair relaxers remain popular despite concerns raised by the NIH study. Kate Akpabio, a seamstress, remains unfazed by the study’s findings, continuing her routine of hair relaxing.

Favour Godwin, a trader in Lagos, oblivious to the NIH study, cites the necessity of relaxers for managing her hair.

##Embracing Natural Beauty: A Journey Away from Chemical Relaxers##

In the US, a decline in relaxer sales was witnessed even before the lawsuits, as the natural hair movement gained traction. Sales plummeted by about 9% between 2017 and 2022, a trend likely to persist due to growing consumer apprehensions regarding product safety.

This shift presents an opportunity for natural haircare products, according to Caro Bush, a researcher at Euromonitor.

Large corporations are capitalizing on this trend, with Procter & Gamble acquiring Mielle Organics

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