One woman has decided to produce a documentary exposing the extreme dangers of popular black haircare products including relaxers, hot oil treatments and leave-in conditioners among others. Back in April 2018, natural hair blogger Tola Okogwu appeared in a BBC interview during which she discussed the potentially serious side effects of such products targeted at Black women, and chronicled her own personal experiences with poor reproductive health and miscarriages and the discovery that the hair products she had been using to manage her “problem” hair since childhood were possibly the cause.
Like many women with curly, kinky and afro-textured hair, Okogwu’s relationship with chemical hair relaxers began at a very young age—her mother gave her her first at-home relaxer when she was just 10. It wasn’t until 20 years later that she discovered her uterus was covered in fibroids and subsequently suffered a string of miscarriages, that the blogger began researching what could be at the root of her health issues.
What she came across was lots of information about the dangerous ingredients used in many hair products that are marketed to Black women and studies linking them to hormone disruption and other medical problems including asthma and cancer. One study performed by the Silent Spring Institute has actually managed to measure concentrations of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in a number of hair products, revealing that 80 percent of the Black hair products tested contained these potentially dangerous chemicals, prompting Okogwu to delve deeper. Not only that, but as HipLatina discussed earlier this year, women of color are even more susceptible to the dangers of beauty products because of how we use them—frequently and in larger quantities.
“This study is a first step toward uncovering what harmful substances are in products frequently used by Black women, so we can better understand what’s driving some of the health issues they’re facing,” said Jessica Helm, PhD., lead author of the study.
In the wake of the study, Okogwu’s BBC interview went viral and she realized that even more research needs to be done so that Black women can make better informed decisions regarding their haircare and that this information needs to reach an even wider audience. She launched an Indigogo campaign to raise funds for the project and recruited filmmaker Sheila Marshall and activist Abi Begho to help research and film what she describes as a “short film that aims to demystify the world of Afro-haircare products.”
As an Afro-Latina child, my own mother was a hairdresser and she steadfastly refused to chemically straighten my hair, which is closer to curly than kinky. But as a teenager I desperately wished she would change her mind and save me from the two hours I spent every week to blow out my long mane. We used all sorts of lotions, conditioners and oils from the “ethnic” hair section though, because back in the 80s and 90s, if were anything other than White and you had and kind of curly hair, that’s where you got your products.
Then in my early 20s I began to toy with the idea of embracing my curls, and I myself discovered that many of the products I had been using for years were actually terribly unhealthy. I was so thankful that my mom had convinced me that I didn’t need chemical straighteners. I tossed a lot of my products, detoxed my haircare routine and even stopped using heat, except a few times a year.
At the time though, I thought these products were just bad for my hair, I didn’t realize they could be impacting my health in other ways as well, which goes to show that Okogwu is definitely onto something. As a well-informed woman of color with excellent access to information, I wasn’t even aware of all of these potential dangers.
With the news of the Silent Spring study and whatever other details are sure to be revealed in Okogwu’s upcoming documentary, I’m grateful that I cleaned up my routine long before I got pregnant, had my beautiful Afro-Latinx babies and began caring for their gorgeous mixed-texture hair.