Safiyyah Edley remembers being dropped off at the beauty salon as a child while her parents ran errands. When she came home it looked like her kinky hair had been hot-combed straight, but after a swim she noticed the texture of her hair was different.
The helmet hair was a telltale sign that the hairdresser may have used chemical relaxer on Edley’s hair—without her parents’ approval or her own knowledge. Like that of many other African American women and girls, Edley’s naturally kinky hair was a typical target of chemical relaxers, which provide a smooth appearance more reminiscent of Pantene commercials than their own natural locks. But the Brazilian blowout is a recent invention. The chemical hair relaxers favored by black women have been around since the early 1900s and haven’t seen the same severe health warnings or regulatory intervention. These relaxers break down chemical bonds in each hair follicle and strand and have been dubbed “creamy crack” by some users because they’re so relied on to maintain appearances.
Ingredients can include lye and phthalates, a group of chemicals used to improve flexibility in plastics that have been banned from use in pacifiers, soft rattles, and other baby products since 1999. Even so, phthalates remain a common ingredient in some cosmetics and personal care products, from shampoos to nail polish, and they have been linked to reproductive harm, including development of uterine fibroids. Uterine fibroids are a health issue common among black women; existing research hypothesizes that the common link may be the use of hair relaxers, though further research needs to be conducted for conclusive evidence.
“Back in the day when I was young, African American girls and women were putting relaxer on our edges every two weeks,” Edley says, referring to the puffy fresh root growth of treated hair. “I’m sure you’ve seen African American women with their edges missing. And we suffer from chemical burns, all of that. So just imagine putting this on children’s heads and they’re getting this service over and over and over.”
Since long before women took irons to their long tresses in the 1960s, they’ve relied on a variety of treatments to make their hair straight—and some of those have been regulated for use of toxic chemicals. Early formulations of the Brazilian blowout treatment, which temporarily smoothes out frizzy hair, caught the attention of federal regulators for containing high levels of the carcinogen formaldehyde.