Hair

Black women’s health remains at risk from this harmful chemical in hair relaxers – and this campaign aims to stop it

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Leah Sinclair
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New research from campaign group Level Up has found over 95% of Black British women don’t trust beauty brands that sell hair relaxers – and they are demanding one particularly harmful chemical be removed.

The conversation around Afro hair is one that has always been complex – and hair relaxers have often been at the centre of it.

The use of hair relaxers to chemically straighten Afro hair was once a go-to for Black women around the world before a resurgence in natural hairstyles and protective do’s changed the landscape for Black women and their hair. However, getting your hair relaxed remains popular but can pose serious harm due to one particularly dangerous chemical – and a new campaign is aiming to put a stop to it.

Campaign group Level Up has launched a petition calling on beauty brands to ban the use of the chemical lye, otherwise known as sodium hydroxide, which has been found to cause numerous health issues, particularly among Black women.

“In 2021, Oxford University’s Carcinogenesis journal published a study that showed that long-term use of hair relaxers containing lye, the same toxic chemical used to unblock drains, was connected to a 30% increased risk of breast cancer,” says Level Up campaigner Ikamara Larasi.

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“While the Oxford study focused on Black women in the US over a 20-year period, the Level Up campaigners couldn’t find a similar study here in the UK and felt it was “vital to get a snapshot of Black women’s experiences in the UK”.

To do this, the campaign group surveyed 1,024 Black British women aged 25-44 and found 95.5% of Black British women don’t trust beauty brands that sell hair relaxers containing lye, with 63% saying they had negative side effects when using hair relaxers, most commonly scalp burns and hair loss.

“Through this campaign Level Up will continue to talk about the harms caused by lye in hair relaxers and the experiences of Black British women,” says Larasi. “And we know the more we talk, the more people will listen. We should all be able to trust that the products we use on our bodies are safe, and we’re petitioning [beauty brands] to make a global commitment to removing lye from all hair relaxer products.”

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What is lye?

Sodium hydroxide, commonly known as lye, is a harmful chemical used to unblock drains that is also used in hair relaxers. According to Larasi, this is because lye is “harsh enough to weaken the bonds between hair proteins in order to straighten it”.

Why does lye disproportionately affect Black women?

“Hair relaxers are exclusively marketed to Black women and girls, and this exposes them to a number of health risks throughout their lifetime, most of which they may not be aware of,” says Larasi.

The journal Carcinogenesis discovered a link between hair relaxers containing and a potential higher risk of oestrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer.

Meanwhile, a recent study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology reports that the use of hair relaxers may increase the risk of uterine fibroids

“We’ve heard from women who have experienced severe skin conditions, burns and hair loss, in addition to breast cancer,” says Larasi. “We already know that the use of hair relaxers has been linked to fibroids, asthma and fertility issues.”  

Is there a way to relax your hair or use alternative methods that don’t contain lye?

“There are other brands that offer ‘no-lye’ relaxers by replacing lye with ‘less toxic’ ingredients like calcium hydroxide – also known as lime,” says Larasi. “But until the proper research is done on the harms caused by these chemicals, we won’t know the full extent of their impact.”

What is the best way to detect if a hair relaxer or product has lye in it?

“Check the ingredients list, if you find sodium hydroxide then your hair relaxer contains lye.” 

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Leah Sinclair

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