While the trend toward sourcing the ingredients in food has been years in the making, more people are becoming aware of what’s in the cosmetics and hair products they use. The Allegheny Front’s summer intern, 17-year old Anesa Reed, started taking a closer look at the products she and her friends like most. Here’s her story.

Like a lot of days, I do my friend McKayla Dixon’s hair, which can take up to an hour, depending on what style she’s doing. Kayla likes it curly, with kind of a wet look to it.

I still use a chemical relaxer to straighten my hair. Kayla did too when she was little…

“I got my hair relaxed I think it was like seven maybe eight. Was it a choice? No. My mom did it. She was tired of doing my hair,” she tell me.

The lye used in most relaxer can cause burns and irritation. She told me when her mom used these relaxers, her hair broke off and became kind of short and dry.

LISTEN: “Switching to Safer Hair Products Not So Easy”

Now, Kayla’s got natural hair. She doesn’t use relaxers or perms. And she does her own hair…or I do. She can get a nice curl with just water but that’s not going to last long.

To enhance and better define her curls, she’s got a few products to choose from: shea moisture and Cantu curl activating cream. And then there’s something that’s gotten a lot of attention recently called Eco Styler. It has a good hold, and can last a long time. It also comes in a huge variety.

We tried one with castor oil and flaxseed, one with olive oil, and another with argan oil. That all sounds natural. But we watch a lot of YouTube , and and have seen some controversy over Eco Styler.

Kayla and I haven’t had a problem with it. But it got me thinking more about what’s in these products we use.

It turns out the Environmental Working Group has looked into this. We spoke with Nneka Leiba, their main researcher on cosmetics and hair products.

She told us that 75 percent of products targeted to African American women contain potentially toxic ingredients. That’s higher than I thought it would be.

The Environmental Working Group created a database, Skin Deep, that lets you look at what’s in different products, and whether its dangerous. We look up Eco Styler gel. It has a score of five which means that it’s moderate — not too dangerous.

But Kayla and I are only 17-years-old. We mostly just want our hair to look good. And we’ve got limited money to spend. After we looked up Eco Styler in the Skin Deep database, I ask Kayla how she feels about the product now.

“At least it’s moderate, not like terrible,” she says.

I ask her if it was high, would she consider changing? I mean, she’s been using this product for three years. She says, honestly, probably not.

“I mean like me, personally, nothing ever happened to me. I haven’t experienced hair loss or anything like that,” she says.

I agree with Kayla. I will continue to use my Eco Styler gel and other hair products.

Anesa Reed hard at work on her essay at her desk at The Allegheny Front office. Photo: Aaron Terrett

But I met someone who feels differently, and has made a career of trying to offer alternatives for people who want to use more natural products. Madame Athena Chang visited Pittsburgh recently, to give a talk about why women continue to use products that could harm them.  When she was a teenager, she wanted stick straight hair, like what she saw on TV.

“I remember literally one day being in the mirror and crying and wanting to pull my hair out because the images that were out there did not say that my hair texture was beautiful,” she told me.

But Chang says she started to question why she and so many African American women seemed to want to look different. Why were they using products that were bad for them?

“The science for me is not the heart of the discussion,” she says. “It is the internalized pieces. What are the social factors that make us do these harmful things to ourselves, even for some of us who have the education and understand what it is doing to us on a health level?”

But I like my hair to look sleek and healthy, and I’m not ready to give up Eco Styler gel, or even chemical relaxer.  Since I’ve been looking into all this, I am paying more attention to ingredients  – checking out all the products I use, and thinking about how they could affect me.  That’s a start.

Anesa Reed was a summer intern through Learn and Earn, an employment opportunity through Partner4Work and Youth Enrichment Services, or YES. YES aims to empower youth through mentorship, education, and enrichment.

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