When Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line racked up a reported $100 million in sales in its first forty days on the market, it brought attention to a major trend in the beauty industry: the focus on women of color. But many hair and beauty products, especially those marketed to African-American women, still contain potentially toxic ingredients. Meet some of the women working to change that.

Malaika Cooper (L) and Monica Green (R) both own salons that specialize in natural hair care. Photo: Julie Grant

A Natural Hair Care Expo in Cleveland 

Malaika Cooper was just a kid when she stopped using relaxer to straighten her hair and started wearing dreadlocks.

“My grandfather was like, ‘Why are you putting those things in your hair? You need to go to the beauty parlor,’” Cooper recalls. She told him her hair was done.  

The relaxer had lye in it, and could burn. But her family confronted her about not using it, and asked her why she had stopped. Her answer was that she didn’t want to put chemicals in her hair anymore.

Now Cooper has made a career of locking and naturally styling hair at her salon in Baltimore. She also holds Natural Hair Care Expos around the country, including one in Cleveland recently.

LISTEN: “Many Hair Care Products for African-American Women are Toxic. That’s Changing.”

Standing on a small stage, she laments that more than thirty years later, young black girls still use chemical relaxer to straighten their hair and have a kiddie perm marketed just to them.

“We start at a young age, telling our children that they are not beautiful in their own natural state,” she says.

Increasing Consumer Awareness

But times are changing. More people are becoming aware of chemicals in products, like parabens associated with hormonal problems, and formaldehyde connected with cancer.

Nneka Leiba researches chemicals and health hazards at the Environmental Working Group. In a survey of consumer products, it focused some of the research on hair products marketed to African-American women.

“Less than 25 percent of the products we assessed scored in the green range, meaning low toxicity,” she says.

Compare that with 40 percent of products for the entire population, and Leiba says, it’s disheartening.

“It is not okay that black women and women of color are sidelined and are an afterthought. That has to change. The time is now.”

Hair dyes and relaxers had the highest toxicity ratings. The Environmental Working Group now has a searchable database of more than 73,000 specific products, called Skin Deep, and Leiba says it gets more than 1,000 searches an hour. She thinks it’s helping increase awareness, and that could be why consumers are demanding change.

“Hopefully by shining a light on what’s available for specific demographics, companies will step up to the plate and offer more green-rated products,” she says.

Some major brands like L’Oreal have made cleaner-sounding products marketed to African-American women over the years. Their Dark and Lovely line, has long included a relaxer without lye, although the line is still considered a moderate health hazard by the Environmental Working Group.

Products for sale at the Natural Hair Care Expo. Photo: Julie Grant

Pressure to Use Products with Potentially Harmful Ingredients Still Exists 

Despite the health issues, some mothers still hear negative comments if their daughters don’t use relaxer. Lifestyle guru Madame Athena Chang, who recently spoke in Pittsburgh, says she’s tired of hearing things like, ‘Is that your daughter? How come her hair isn’t good like yours?’

Madame Athena Chang. Photo courtesy of Madame Chang.

Chang’s grandfather was from China, while her daughter is African-American, and so their hair looks different.

Chang says black women face lifelong discrimination for wearing their natural hair at work or at school. And she says some of it comes from other black women.

“When the internalized racism is so deep, people don’t have awareness,” she says.

Women Using Their Buying Power

But Chang says the move by many black women to wear natural hair is making a difference in the market. Research firm Mintel finds that sales of chemical relaxers plummeted by more than one third between 2012 and 2017, while sales of natural hair styling products jumped. And this isn’t a small change.>>

Mintel estimates annual sales of black hair care products at more than $2.5 billion. Chang says that should get companies’ attention.

>>WEB EXTRA: Hear more from Julie Grant’s interview with Madame Athena Chang, and environmental health scientist, Nicole Acevedo, her partner at the cosmetics brand they’re developing, The Power of Lipstick, here:

“It is not okay that black women and women of color are sidelined and are an afterthought,” she says. “That has to change. The time is now. And so brands that are not adding us on, but that [make us] central from the get-go, it’s absolutely necessary. We have so much buying power within this space.”

While more African-American women move toward natural styles, Chang says natural doesn’t always mean non-toxic. She says there’s a void in safe products for black women, and she’s in the process of introducing a new cosmetics line with ingredients she says are proven safe.

The Natural Hair Care Expo in Cleveland included a class titled “The Hair Scientist: What’s Really in Your Hair Care Products?” Photo: Julie Grant

With Changing Styles Comes New Stylist Training

Back at the Natural Hair Care Expo, Monica Green is talking with stylists considering training as natural hair specialists at her H2 Healthy Hair Academy. She also owns a salon on the west side of Cleveland, called So Curly So Kinky So Straight, which specializes in natural hair. Green says business is growing.

“Women are more conscious now about what they put in and on their bodies,” she says.

The wave toward natural hair started around five years ago, Green says. But women still come in to her salon with basic questions about what they can do with their hair and want advice. Green assures them that natural hair can be fun and beautiful, and she’s seeing more young people come in who’ve never used chemicals.

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