Hair Products: Is There Risk Behind The Beauty?

Hairstyling products have been used since ancient times, with Ancient Egyptians using hair gel-like substances. Most of us use hair products every day and do not give a second thought to the ingredients. Historically, such styling products would’ve been made with natural ingredients. With growing advances in chemistry and technology, many beauty products are made with artificial ingredients. So what are they and is it safe to use those?

Key takeaways:

With the growing use of man-made chemicals, scientists have noted the possible harms of these chemicals on the human body. Some of the chemicals used in hair products could be dangerous as well.

Polymers (which help hold the hair together), solvents, additives, and propellants can be found in many hairstyling products. Most of these ingredients are derived from petroleum and/or plastic. While these names are unknown to many of us, the question remains, are they safe?

Safety of hair products

Hair products are cosmetics, and thus do not need FDA approval. Cosmetics are regulated by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, as well as the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. These acts prohibit the manufacture and distribution of adulterated or misbranded products. “Adulterated” products are those that may cause injury to users, and misbranded products are those that fail to list ingredients.

While adulterated cosmetics are banned, this does not mean that the ingredients are safe. A substance may not be immediately toxic, but it could still be toxic or cause cancer in the long term. Cancers tend to develop over long periods, and toxicity testing on animals does not always correlate with human results. Some chemicals may be particularly damaging to females due to their effects on the endocrine (hormonal) system.

One example of a potentially dangerous chemical that is not banned by the FDA is Bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is termed an Endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC), and there is increasing evidence that it has negative effects on our hormones. BPA is commonly found in cosmetics, sunscreen, food, toys, and other products, and it has been detected in various human tissues and fluids. There’s evidence that early exposure to BPA is a risk factor for diseases such as cancer and diabetes. BPA, particularly in hair straightening products, has also been linked to uterine cancer in a recent study published in the National Cancer Institute Journal by Chang et al.

Due to quality control issues, some substances known to be toxic or cancerogenic can make it into the final product that is sold to consumers

Benzene, a cancerogenic chemical, is not allowed in cosmetics, and there is no safe level of human exposure to benzene. However, it is commonly used in various petroleum products and has been inadvertently found in various cosmetics. Benzene was found in sunscreens in 2021 and hair products in 2022, leading to recalls. As companies are not required to test their products for benzene or similar substances, there are ongoing concerns that a lot of cosmetic products may have undetected levels of benzene.

Labels and protection from toxic chemicals

While the European Union bans over 2000 chemicals (out of more than 50,000) for use in cosmetics, the FDA bans only 14; the EPA has banned 6. This puts the onus on safety and research on consumers. From a US perspective, there’s no requirement to ensure that a chemical is safe if it has already been in use or to test any new product for safety before marketing it.

You may check your hair products by following these three tips:

When choosing cosmetics and hair styling products, you may want to select ones that are compliant with European EC regulations vs. US FDA regulations alone. This will ensure that you’re avoiding chemicals that have been convincingly shown to be toxic, particularly following long-term exposure, such as formaldehyde, petroleum, parabens, triclosan, BPA, hydroquinone, p-phenylenediamine (PPD), quaternium-15, talc, titanium, or Avobenzone.

Another trick is to avoid catch-all ingredient terms, such as “Fragrance.” US regulations allow almost any product to be named a “substance,” creating a loophole.

Consider using all-natural hair styling and cosmetics products, and choosing non-plastic containers, such as recyclable cartons, if possible.

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