Two interns at the corner of 150th Street and Amsterdam Avenue scan passersby for receptive-looking faces. One tentatively walks up to a young woman playing with her phone.
“Excuse me, miss,” he says. “I’m with the organization WE ACT for Environmental Justice and I was wondering if you have a minute to answer some questions about your beauty regimen?” He hands her a two-page questionnaire.
The environmental activist group is surveying women of color uptown about their use of hair products and cosmetics that could endanger their health.
“We noticed that groups conducting surveys around this have focused on middle-class white women,” says Ogonnaya Dotson-Newman, campaign director for WE ACT in Harlem. “But there is a whole area of hair products that you wouldn’t know about unless you live in certain urban areas.”
The survey, which targets African, African-American and Hispanic women, asks how often they visit hair salons, what treatments they get and what hair products they use at the salon and at home. It also asks if they’re aware of the risks of certain chemicals and concerned about exposing themselves and their families to them.
Since launching the survey in August, WE ACT has gotten responses from 80 women. Although they have printed and distributed questionnaires in Spanish and English, they have had trouble reaching Hispanic women, Dotson-Newman says, unsure of the reason. She hopes to release findings by January. While the results will not be statistically valid, the group will use them to shape future awareness campaigns.
The products it’s concerned about include skin lighteners, perms, relaxers, texturizers, dyes and glues – all particularly used by women of color. They contain chemicals and hormones linked to early puberty and cancer, Dotson-Newman says, including parabens, placenta and formaldehyde.
The main problem, she says, is that the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have little authority or resources to monitor cosmetic companies and enforce environmental regulations.
Since the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 was reintroduced into the U.S. House of Representatives in June for the second year, environmental groups have been urging the Food and Drug Administration to better regulate cosmetic companies’ use of chemicals and their products’ labels.
“It’s up to the government and the people to prove that certain products are harmful,” Dotson-Newman says. “That’s why we are conducting the survey, to get a better understanding of how people are using these products and what is their possible exposure to toxicity.”
While hair dyes, bleaches and relaxers have already been linked to skin problems (including rashes, burns, itching and hair loss), a number of national studies are being conducted to determine whether women of color face higher risks of breast and lung cancer from beauty product exposure.
Dr. Mary Beth Terry, a Columbia University epidemiologist, published a study in May in the Journal of Immigration and Minority Health showing that African-American and African-Caribbean women were more likely to be exposed to hormonally-active chemicals in hair products than white women, and used them more often.
“These products are often used daily and over the course of many years,” Terry says. “A number of these commonly-used products contain endocrine disruptors and placenta, and exposure to these could cause women to be more susceptible to hormone-sensitive diseases such as aggressive breast cancer.”
Some companies offer so-called natural alternatives in hair products. Carol’s Daughter, for instance, produces products that originated 20 years ago with founder Lisa Price making beauty remedies in her kitchen. But the products are marketed as “natural inspired” because even many of those contain chemicals.
“To have a product with natural ingredients, it has to have preservatives or it will go bad after some time,” says Shonitria Anthony, a supervisor at the Harlem branch of Carol’s Daughter. Although its products don’t contain the worst offenders like parabens, sulphates or mineral oils, the company steers clear of hair dyes and relaxers. “You can’t get a hair dye or relaxer without some sort of chemical, it just won’t last long,” says Anthony.
Dotson-Newman agrees, calling “organic perms” an oxymoron. A lot of products marketed as “organic” contain chemicals, she argues, but current laws leave lots of loopholes that companies can use to deceptively label products.
The Model Hair Care beauty salon on West 146th Street and Amsterdam Avenue is a modest establishment run by 28-year old Senegalese immigrant May Seye. A small room with little ventilation, the salon has room for only one chair and a couch.
Seye averages 12 customers a day, students and fellow immigrants who appreciate her inexpensive prices.
“I also get a lot of African-American women bringing in their young daughters,” Seye says. “If the girls get their hair relaxed, it’s easier for the mothers to manage it in the mornings before school.”
As two young women sit on the couch with warm towels on their heads, tucking into chicken and rice as they wait for their treatments, Seye prepares for her next client. She puts on latex gloves and begins mixing the relaxer with the activator. The smell is unmistakable, somewhat like chlorine.
Seye says she’s concerned about her health working with harsh chemicals, but asserts there are no truly organic alternatives on the market. She tries to check labels and take precautions, she says, wearing a mask when doing her clients’ hair treatments, washing her hands constantly and visiting her doctor regularly.
“I feel it affecting my lungs mostly,” she says.
“But I try to watch my health, eat right and drink lots of milk, especially after using certain products,” she says, adding that her mother taught her that whole milk strengthens the body’s resistance to disease.
Dotson-Newman says salon workers and owners are clearly more at risk because of their prolonged and frequent exposure to harsh chemicals, and more needs to be done to educate salon owners.
While Seye adjusts her white plastic mask, her client, Dana Williamson, explains that she comes in twice a month for a wash and set, and gets her hair relaxed twice a year.
“I am aware of the danger of some of these chemicals, and I think about it a little, but it’s not a concern,” she says. “I never go to places where I would be exposed to the harsher stuff, like the Brazilian keratin blow-out or formaldehyde.”
As a student, she can’t afford to buy “organic” beauty products, Williamson adds. She shops at Walmart instead.
But Dotson-Newman believes money is not the chief concern for women of color, saying she knows women who spend $1,500 on hairpieces. Their primary aim, in her opinion, is effective hair treatment, regardless of the risks or expense.
“Women spend $50 to $100 every eight weeks to get their hair done, plus all the products in between,” she said. “I think it’s a broader question about what beauty is.”
Ethnic women were never encouraged to embrace their natural features and were instead taught to emulate Caucasians, Dotson-Newman thinks, although it has become more acceptable, even trendy, to go natural.
“Before, you couldn’t even get a job without straight hair,” she says. “Now it’s in to be natural.”
Once the surveys indicate how often women are exposed to particular products, she says, the group can begin lobbying the cosmetics industry and advising women in Harlem about seeking beauty safely.