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?
A Hair Straightening Addiction
Hair straightening is a lot like smoking: even though it hurts our pocketbook, the environment, and our bodies, it is difficult to stop once you start. However, hair straightening is not an addiction – it is a compulsion influenced by social and economic pressures. Like skin whitening and tooth bleaching, hair-straightening is more than a vanity call. Whether attending a job interview or going on a date, no one wants to appear dirty or messy. These words are regularly used to describe curly hair. Even products directed at curly consumers feature derisive terminology for curls: “frizzy,” “matted,” and “tangled.” Although straight hair can also have these problems, curling irons and perms are not peddled as solutions. Straight-haired women are not shown as “before” pictures in the commercials that promise to turn that “mess” on my head into something sleek, shiny, straight and “professional.”
Even celebrities admired for their “natural curls,” such as Taylor Swift and Beyonce, wear weaves, clip-on attachments, or have their styled straight before it is re-curled. Most straight-haired women do not face pressure to “look professional” by curling their hair. However, curlies have a choice— we do not have to give in to peer pressure, and we can express our individual styles without contributing to animal testing, trashing the planet, or hurting ourselves.
Alternatives to Hair Straightening
1. Go natural. “Natural” does not mean living with unruly hair for life or limiting yourself to an afro. Healthy, moisturized curls are easier to style, and less likely to frizz. Hair straightening products such as gels and sprays that claim to “tame” hair actually dry it out, leading to more frizz, more breakage, and more bad hair days. When reading mainstream beauty advice, keep in mind that most of it is written by people with straight or straightened hair, who have very little experience in caring for curly hair. Some of their advice is outright curl-phobic!
Advice which limits “styling” to wearing your hair in a bun, and uses words like “tame,” “smooth,” “straighten” or “gel” is designed to sell products, not improve the look and health of your hair. Curl care should not focus on how to remove or “hide” curls, but how to keep them healthy and beautiful enough to show off. If hair straightening advice reads more like a guide on what to do with a rabid dog, put it away. Moisturize your locks with a good-quality conditioner recommended for your curl-type. Try some oil treatments or go no-poo, and expect amazing results.
For more information on alternatives to hair straightening, check out NaturallyCurly.com, and check out Lorraine Massey’s Curly Girl for realistic advice catered to your exact curl type.
2. Invest in a wig. Angelina Jolie, Katie Holmes, Beyonce, Tyra Banks, Kirstin Dunst, and Rihanna wear wigs to keep their trademark hair looking its best. If you want “hair like the stars,” opt for a realistic, quality wig made from synthetic fibers. A synthetic ¾ wig, lace front, or full-cover wig will give you “perfect” hair with minimum upkeep. Some wig makers even let you donate your own hair for a perfect match. Most wig shops let you try on wigs before purchase, giving you the perfect selection of cuts, textures, and color. Since wigs require little to no maintenance, and can be re-used or re-styled to fit the times, they ultimately cost less money and require fewer resources than a weekly styling session.
3. Go to extremes. Grow your hair out, or cut it short. Curls have amazing texture, and very short or very long styles are guaranteed to turn heads.
Long curls weigh themselves down, which is why most curl-types stop poofing once they grow towards your lower back. Long curls are a popular afro-alternative, and a romantic blowback to the Victorian Age. They look beautiful with flowery hair accessories and in partial updos, or with an off-center side-part. Whichever long style you opt for, remember long hair requires more upkeep than short hair, such daily conditioning or regular oil treatments.
More daring fashionistas might want to cut curly hair short ultra-short, which draws out its natural texture. This style is not for the risk-averse, and for best results, seek out a stylist who works exclusively with curly hair (or who has good reviews, pictures, or testimonials from curly clientele). Be clear about how short you are willing to go, and bring in a photograph matching your curl type. Short, tousled hair is low-maintenance and brings out smoky eyes, long earrings, and bold lipstick. Best of all, close-cropped curls are one of the few hairstyles that manages to be both business-and-party-friendly, no hair straightening required.
[Image Credit: Creative Commons photo by kirisryche]