Few things inspire such awe and angst as hair.
Our collective obsession with attaining the perfect color, texture and style has led manufacturers to develop tonics and tinctures designed to clean, straighten, curl, color, mold and tame our tresses. Has the quest for perfect ‘do put our health at risk?
Yes, say scientists. In addition to making hair brittle and increasing breakage, research has linked the chemicals in hair products such as coloring agents and straighteners with health effects ranging from skin irritation and asthma to increased risk of fibroids and bladder cancer.
“These chemicals are toxins that are absorbed into our bodies through our scalp,” explains Sharon Stills, ND, naturopathic doctor and author of RED: Get Real and Heal (Advantage). “There are certain toxins, such as environmental pollutants, that are hard to avoid so we have to take extra care to avoid toxins when we can make choices to minimize our exposure. Switching to a natural hair care regimen is one of the ways we can reduce our toxic load.
The realization that chemical relaxers could affect her health led Chauniqua Major to embrace her hair’s natural texture in 2010. Major, a publicist in Orlando, Florida, had been using relaxers since she was a child. Her mother, the hairdresser who applied the treatments, didn’t support her decision.
|Helping Hair From the Inside|
Having healthy hair depends just as much on what you eat as what you put (or don’t put) on your tresses. “Just as with every other part of your body, the processes that support strong, vibrant hair depend on a balanced diet,” says beauty nutritionist Lisa Drayer, MA, RD, author of The Beauty Diet (McGraw-Hill). She’s a fan of wild (not farm-raised) salmon, which also supplies inflammation-fighting omega-3 oils.
Other foods supply the vitamins and minerals your hair needs to look its best. Dark green vegetables provide vitamins A and C; and nuts and seeds, selenium. Zinc works with the entire B-complex to increase shine; two members of the B family, vitamin B5 and biotin, are used to produce keratin. Supplemental MSM provides organic sulfur.
Traditional Chinese Medicine employs a number of herbs to support hair growth.
According to its precepts, aging leads to a decline in the energy and “vital substances” of the liver and kidney (more a set of inter-related energy systems than physical organs in TCM). This causes hair to thin and lose its natural color. Provide herbal support to these organs, the thinking goes, and you can revitalize hair.
Among the most famous TCM hair remedies is ho shou wu (Polygonum multiflorum). Regarded as a kidney and liver tonic, it is used to keep hair from going gray prematurely; TCM practitioners believe it can even reverse color loss. Nu zhen zi (Ligustrum lucidum) has also been used to fight premature graying. Han lien tsao (Eclipta alba) plays the same role in India’s Ayurvedic medicine tradition and is believed to rejuvenate hearing, memory and sight as well. Di chien tsao (Centella asiatica) is valued in both traditions for its ability to improve circulation, including blood flow through the capillaries that feed the scalp.
Western herbalism has hair herbs of its own. Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) and Ginkgo biloba help nourish hair follicles, a key factor in retarding hair loss. Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a traditional blood cleanser that may also promote hair growth, while rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) supports healthy circulation.
“There is some stigma in the African American community about going natural,” explains Major, 24. “My mom thought I should keep relaxing my hair because [she thought] it wouldn’t look good natural.”
But concerns over chemicals led Major to stick with her plan. A few months later, her mom was diagnosed with emphysema. “She’d never smoked a day in her life,” Major recalls. “The doctor told her it was common in hairdressers because they work with so many chemicals.”
The diagnosis convinced Major’s mother that she should reduce her chemical exposure, including hair relaxers. She followed Major’s lead and embraced natural hair. “It’s scary to think that something you put on your hair can do so much damage,” Major says.
In 2011, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a warning about the possible health implications of hair-straightening products with formaldehyde, which binds the structural protein keratin to hair. The report noted that the risks were most pronounced for salon workers who used the products regularly. The keratin-based treatments are banned in Canada and the European Union.
The health implications of straighteners are alarming enough. But they can also wreak havoc on hair, according to Carolyn Jacob, MD, director of Chicago Cosmetic Surgery and Dermatology and fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. “It can make your hair brittle and more susceptible to breakage,” she says.
While it’s never too late to eliminate toxic chemicals from a beauty regime, Stills encourages her clients to embrace natural hair care before they are diagnosed with a serious illness.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” she says. “You can stop dyeing and coloring your hair now and reduce your risk of cancer or you can wait until you get cancer to stop dyeing your hair.”
Making the Change
When Major stopped using straighteners and dyes, she struggled to find natural products. Even the labels of products that claimed to be natural listed ingredients that she couldn’t pronounce. Frustrated with the options, she sought out products such as aloe vera juice, shea butter and coconut oil.
“You can find tons of [made] at-home, kitchen-based remedies for natural hair care,” says Stacey Dugliss-Wesselman, author of The Home Apothecary (Quarry) and founder of the natural beauty company Cold Spring Apothecary. “Becoming your own personal cosmetic chemist can be both fun and rewarding.”
Dugliss-Wesselman believes there are different levels of natural hair care. While some women want to stick with raw ingredients such as avocado and jojoba, others prefer buying products that are made with natural ingredients. In both groups, she says, “There are lots of green alternatives out there.”
In fact, a growing demand for natural hair care products has led to an increasing number of options on store shelves. It’s possible to find products ranging from shampoo, conditioner to styling products and hair dyes that are free of harsh chemicals.
“Don’t be afraid to experiment. I don’t know many women who haven’t tried a million different shampoos brands over the years so why not do the same with naturals?” asks Dugliss-Wesselman.
While natural products tend to be more expensive, there is a positive trade-off. “With naturals a little often goes a long way,” says Dugliss-Wesselman. “When I’m grocery shopping I know that pretty much everything I buy will work double-time for me. So can it be more expensive? Yes, but it can also, if done right, save you money.”
Major still uses popular ingredients such as coconut oil and aloe vera juice to wash and condition her hair but she has also incorporated chemical-free products made by national brands. “After a while, I started seeing more products pop up on store shelves,” Major recalls. “As more women started to go natural, it got easier to find [products] that were all natural and organic.”
Know your Labels
It’s important to read labels carefully. “Educate yourself,” Dugliss-Wesselman says. “Just because its says ‘natural’ on the package doesn’t mean it is.” For example, manufacturers are not required to list fragrance ingredients because that’s considered a trade secret. The word ‘fragrance’ on the label often means a product contains toxins, so look for products that are scented with essential oils instead.
As a general rule, you should be able to identify and pronounce the ingredients in hair care products (makers are required to list them on the label). If in doubt, check Skin Deep (www.ewg.org/skindeep), a cosmetics database created by the non-profit Environmental Working Group to rate toxins in personal care products. (Another reason to go natural: Your purchases will encourage more companies to develop chemical-free alternatives.)
Natural products such as apple cider vinegar, shea butter, avocado and jojoba oil add shine, lock in color, tame frizz, remove dandruff and restore scalp health. Herbal extracts such as chamomile, eucalyptus, juniper berry, nettle, rosemary and tea tree help revitalize and condition hair.
Natural products “won’t strip your hair of its own natural oils so that you need to wash more frequently or leave a chemical buildup that makes your hair dull and weighed down,” Dugliss-Wesselman explains. “If you follow a natural regime based on your hair type you will find that you hair may actually feel cleaner and healthier, and have more volume.”
In fact, a quest for healthier hair is one of the biggest reasons more women are making the switch. “The harshness of some of these treatments can do a lot of damage to the hair and scalp,” Jacob says. “You don’t want to overdo it. The less you can do, the better.”
While Major was committed to going natural, she faced a challenge when she stopped using chemical relaxers: After 14 years of styling relaxed hair, she had no idea what her natural hair looked like—or how to manage it.
“I’d never worked with its natural texture,” she recalls. “I had to go to YouTube for tutorials on how to care for my natural hair.”
Major admits that she found the transition difficult at first. Years of applying chemical relaxers had taken a toll on her hair; it was brittle and broke easily, making it challenging to grow out. She wore wigs and extensions until her own hair was healthy enough to be styled.
“Don’t expect an overnight miracle,” advises Dugliss-Wesselman. “You need to give your hair and scalp time to adjust. But if you stick with it you’ll reap the rewards.”
After a few months of skipping the relaxers and using natural products, Major was surprised at how healthy her hair became. It wasn’t just the texture of her hair that changed. For the first time in her life, Major had long hair.
“When I was using relaxers, my hair would stop growing at a certain point and break off because it was so brittle,” she recalls. “My hair has done a total 180; it’s grown exponentially and it’s so thick and strong and voluminous. I tell people it’s like switching from processed foods to natural and organic foods. Your hair responds the same way that your body does. It looks and feels better.”