Natural Beauty long hair girl

Published on March 17th, 2011 | by Roxy the Killer


Hair Straightening: The Hidden Dangers

girl with hair that is half curly and half straight

I never thought my hair straightening obsession could be lethal.

For years, I tried “fixing” my ‘fro. It’s been “tamed,” “slicked,” “bound,” “whipped,” “slicked,” and even flat-ironed, then re-curled into Jessica Simpson’s “beachy waves.” Rather than channeling Jessica, I channeled Nancy Grace. And my hair was not beach-ready, either, since any contact with water turned my perfect coif into a perfect mess. My stylist washed and style my hair for me, since I could not wet my hair in the shower. I slept with a special protective bonnet, and woke up an hour early to straighten out crimps. Two years of dedicated primping and over $840 later, I obtained the limp, stick-straight look closet-curlies are notorious for. Success!

Many curlies are familiar with this story, but few of us realize how harmful hair straightening is to our bodies and our environment. Although I am curly again, but my “hair experiment” contributed to an industry that maims and kills millions of animals a year, generates toxic fumes, and destroys hair along with women’s physical health.

Hair Straightening: Social, Environmental, and Health Issues

What’s so bad about hair straightening?

Most of us already know that using heat or chemicals for hair straightening isn’t good for us. I burned my face with styling tools and endured funky chemical smells from straightening balms. Few products are cross-tested to check for dangerous chemical reactions. Any heat applied to hair, whether it is through a blow-dryer, hot rollers, curling iron, or flat iron damages the hair and can leave it dry or brittle.

With today’s heightened awareness of global warming, more people than ever are aware of how CFCs in some styling products deplete the ozone, and that products with long lists of un-pronounceable chemicals packed tightly in plastic and aerosol packaging aren’t great for the planet. Although both curly and straight-haired women can use damaging products, mall stands and infomercials disproportionately target curly-haired women, or women with thick “ethnic hair” as customers.

These concerns have not kept hair straightening from becoming a billion-dollar industry. This industry is now so prevalent that most people take it for granted. Marketing campaigns downplay the more severe environmental and health effects of hair straightening - dangers far more severe than burnt skin or ozone depletion.

Hair straightening requires hair products and flat irons, and usually, the aid of a trained hair stylist. Stylists spend years perfecting hair straightening techniques at cosmetology schools and then earn money by promoting product lines from salons they work for. Therefore, most stylists will not tell you whether a product is tested on animals or contains animal ingredients. Millions of animals are killed and maimed each year by the cosmetics industry, despite effective and humane alternatives. Many regulatory agencies, including the FDA, do not require animal testing of cosmetics. However, corporate legal departments rely on animal testing to evade legal liability in the event of a lawsuit. In the midst of this conflict of interest, consumers and animals lose out.

Even with the aid of a cruelty-free stylist, hair straightening products are dangerous. Lye chemical straighteners cause long-term blindness, burns, and scarring. Brazilian hair straightening uses a keratin-based solution which contains formaldehyde, a recognized carcinogen. The formula is sealed into hair with a straightening iron, giving off toxic fumes. Stylists in Miami have donned masks to avoid inhaling them! Formaldehyde-free versions use ether, a flammable anesthetic solvent which causes breathing problems, severe nausea, and  muscle relaxation. Worse yet, this process needs “touch-ups” every few months for new hair growth. So does Japanese hair straightening, a popular alternative. This pricey procedure ($300-1,500) has fewer side effects, but it irreparably alters the structure of hair and can lead to hair loss. Hot combs, a popular alternative to flat irons, can reach temperatures of over 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Although stylists are advised to take great care to avoid touching the comb against the scalp and neck, hot comb burns are common— and can leave permanent scars. Even if the stylist is trained, long-term use of a hot comb leaves holes in a hair’s cuticle layer, resulting in breakage and permanently damaged hair.

Finally, hair straightening contributes to large amounts of environmental waste, using our insecurities to pollute our environment and and our minds. Hair straightening tools and relaxers did not exist before the late 1800s or gain global popularity until the 1960s. Throughout their short history, they have overwhelmingly been marketed to ethnic women with curly hair – and especially gained popularity during the “stick straight” 1990s. Currently, consumers spend $400 million annually on permanents and hair straightening. Over the course of a lifetime, the average women spends close to $50,000 on her hair alone. Aside from the millions of straightening products produced for this market, the heat tools essential to straightening curls out of hair require large amounts of electricity. A blow-dryer alone takes 1200–1875 watts, and I shudder to think how much energy I wasted in a single 4-hour session of blow-drying, helmet-drying, and flat-ironing!

Why would anyone subject themselves to it? Why did I do it?

Image Credit: Creative Commons photo by kirisryche

>>Next: Our hair straightening addiction and some healthy alternatives.

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Feminist, fashionista, animal lover, and budget-minded green machine... all wrapped into one.

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