Many women have used chemical hair straighteners for generations to achieve sleek, straight locks. While these products are popular and can transform even the most unruly of hair textures, few consider what may be happening beneath the surface.
As with many cosmetics, could straightening treatments have unintended consequences for long-term health that we are just beginning to understand?
Join us as we investigate what scientific research is revealing about the potential impacts of chemical hair straighteners and whether there are safer options women should consider.
What Are Chemical Hair Straighteners?
Chemical hair straightening involves the use of lotions or creams that break down the proteins in curly hair, permanently altering its structure to become straight. Unlike temporary options like heat styling or serum treatments, chemically straightened hair maintains its straight appearance until new growth comes in.
Due to the harsh chemicals involved, most salons have hair stylists perform chemical straightening services. Some at-home straightening kits exist but tend to use weaker formulas that may not achieve the same straight look as a professional treatment. The chemicals can potentially damage hair if overused or cause irritation on the scalp.
Common ingredients in chemical straighteners that have raised health concerns include formaldehyde, parabens, diethanolamine, sodium hydroxide, phthalates, triclosan, and certain sunscreen chemicals.
Long-term exposure to some of these through repeated chemical treatments has been correlated with higher risks of conditions like cancer, uterine fibroids, and endometriosis, according to research. The process of straightening hair demands care due to the caustic nature of the chemicals involved.
The Health Risks of Formaldehyde in Hair Straightening Products
A proposal to outlaw formaldehyde-containing or -emitting hair straightening products is being considered by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States.
Formaldehyde has been proven to be a recognized human carcinogen with the capacity to cause cancer. When heated, certain hair-straightening chemicals release formaldehyde gas into the atmosphere. Inhaling these fumes poses serious health risks, both short and long-term.
Formaldehyde exposure has been linked to respiratory issues, asthma, and various cancers. Studies have found that its cancer-causing effects disproportionately impact Black women who frequently use hair straightening and relaxing products. If approved, the FDA’s proposed rule would officially prohibit formaldehyde and related chemicals from hair-smoothing products as early as April 2024.
According to experts, the inhalation of formaldehyde fumes from hair products poses several health hazards. When heat is applied, the chemical is released from the product as a gas that can be inhaled.
Prolonged or frequent exposure increases the risks. Both short-term and long-term effects have been documented. Short-term issues include irritated skin and airways, while long-term risks involve various cancers depending on exposure level and duration. An FDA ban would help protect consumers from unnecessary chemical risks in over-the-counter personal care products.
Research shows that health risks from hair straightener products may disproportionately impact Black women. One study found that hair straightener use during adolescence was much more commonly reported among Black women (75%) compared to non-Hispanic white women (3%).
Additionally, a separate study provides early evidence linking hair straightener use to uterine cancer. This research helped inform a recent investigation into the impacts of hair relaxer chemicals on women’s health, especially among Black communities where usage is relatively higher.
Legal Actions Against Hair Straightening Products
Numerous scientific studies published over the last decade have linked the frequent use of chemical hair straighteners and relaxers to higher risks of developing uterine cancers, breast cancer, uterine fibroids, and other health issues.
As evidence has mounted around these potential harms, legal pressure, including the ongoing chemical hair straightener lawsuit, is now targeting companies that produce these products.
Specifically, manufacturers are facing legal action, such as the ongoing chemical hair straightener lawsuit, for allegedly failing to adequately warn consumers about risks associated with their hair straightening and relaxing products.
TorHoerman Law says that past lawsuits have focused on similar claims regarding hair dyes and increased breast cancer risks. Now, a multidistrict litigation (MDL) is being formed to consolidate various lawsuit claims filed against straightener and relaxer brands in several US districts.
The United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois will combine related cases through the multidistrict litigation (MDL) process.
Federal judges in a number of states around the US. The states, including the Northern District of Illinois, Southern District of Georgia, Southern District of Ohio, Southern District of New York, and Northern District of California, have been confronted with lawsuits addressing relevant problems.
These legal actions aim to hold product manufacturers responsible for not properly informing customers about health issues scientifically linked to the long-term use of chemical hair straightening treatments.
Exploring Safe Alternatives to Chemical Hair Straighteners
In light of the heightened cancer risk associated with chemical hair straighteners, many women are actively seeking alternative methods for achieving straightened hair. Fortunately, several safer alternatives not only match the effectiveness of chemical relaxers but may even surpass them. Here are diverse options to consider:
Cold Air Blow Drying
Utilizing cold air during blow drying, as recommended by Healthline, offers a non-chemical approach to straightening hair. When your hair is about three-quarters dry, divide it and use your blow dryer on the “cool” setting, moving continuously from root to tip while holding the dryer approximately six inches far from your hair.
An alternative method explained by Healthline involves hair wrapping, a popular technique for achieving straight hair without heat styling. This process requires roller pins and a satin scarf or turban. By flatly combing out the top section of your parted hair and wrapping it around to the opposite side of your head, securing it tightly, you can repeat this method for each section to achieve straightened results.
Chemical-Free Hair Straightening Products
Opting for hair straightening products devoid of cancer-causing chemicals provides a safe alternative to relaxers. A wide range of non-toxic hair products, such as hairsprays, conditioners, leave-in conditioners, and shampoos, are intended to soothe and relax hair.
Additionally, smoothing serums and keratin-based spray-on conditioners offer effective alternatives.
Sleeping With Wet Hair
For a product-free option, Healthline suggests sleeping with wet hair. Use a hairband to hold a loose ponytail at the crown of your head. Following that, wrap your hair in a ponytail and fasten it with another hair band to form a bun. Using a satin pillowcase can minimize friction, resulting in a straighter appearance when you release your hair in the morning.
Utilizing a hair mask composed of non-chemical ingredients is a natural way to achieve smooth and straight hair. Various DIY options incorporating kitchen or readily available natural ingredients can be used to nourish and straighten your hair effectively.
Certain essential oils, such as coconut oil, argan oil, almond oil, and macadamia oil, are absorbed into the hair more readily than chemical products. After styling your hair using rollers, wrapping, or a cold blow-dry, apply your chosen essential oil for added fragrance, gloss, and weight, helping your hair maintain its style.
Electric Straightening Iron
An electric straightening iron or flat iron can be employed to straighten hair without chemicals. However, considering the potential damage over time, it is advisable to combine this method with a restrengthening hair product.
In summary, the widespread use of chemical hair straighteners raises health alarms, notably due to substances like formaldehyde. Legal actions against manufacturers underscore growing concerns.
Seeking safer alternatives is crucial. Non-chemical methods, from cold air blow drying to essential oils, offer promising choices for achieving straight hair without compromising health. As awareness grows, informed decisions become paramount, emphasizing a balance between aesthetic preferences and well-being.
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