When it comes to our hair, we often want what we haven’t got. This seems particularly true when it comes to glossy, straight hair. Practically no one is born with it, so we end up forcing our hair into the style we want.
As someone who’s always had curly hair, I’m married to my anti-frizz cream. But I use curling irons and blow dryers to straighten my hair for most on-camera interviews. Other women I know have had to adjust to changes in their hair’s texture as they age, go through hormonal changes, or grow their hair back after cancer treatment.
There’s a huge market for products or services designed to straighten hair. But while they can make our hair look fantastic, they may not be fantastic for our health. Many use chemicals that may have questionable effects on our bodies and on the environment.
Hair spray has been around for decades and might be the most popular hair styling product on the market. A recent study found that as many as 60% of us use it. Hair spray helps any style stay put and many women use it to keep a blow-dried or flat-ironed style sleek and straight.
Companies have changed hair spray formulations over the years to eliminate many harmful chemicals. Most hair sprays contained chlorofluorocarbons, which were found to be destroying the ozone, until those chemicals were banned in 1978. Two other propellants in hair spray were found to cause cancer and are no longer used either: vinyl chloride was banned in 1974 and methylene chloride was banned in 1989.
But even newer hair spray formulas still contain chemicals that have some degree of health risk. The hazards of chemical exposures depends on a lot of things including amount of exposure (dose), frequency of exposure, duration of exposure, and age when exposed. Chemicals called carcinogens usually require regular exposures over long periods of time in order to contribute to the cause of cancer. It can be a regular, low exposure over time or a large exposure for brief periods over time. Most of the data we have are from laboratory animals, not people. We also know that certain times of life are more sensitive to chemical exposures than others. For example, exposure during adolescence, when you’re building your breast tissue, is called a “window of susceptibility.” That’s when you’re laying down the foundation of your future breast health. Radiation exposure during that time, even a low dose for a short time, can be enough to lead to a higher risk of breast cancer later in life. For adult women, after age 25 the breast is more resistant to insults from the outside environment, although the environment can still influence how your cells are built and run.
In this and other Think Pink Live Green expert columns, we look at things in your life that go in, on, and around you. Whenever there’s a significant concern coming out of the lab or from human studies, we want to help you make the best choices. If something may pose a hazard, in the absence of solid research in people, we lean on the Precautionary Principle. Basically it means that it’s better to be safe than sorry. Our goal is to help you make the best choices for you and your family.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) rates the majority of hair sprays as posing a moderate or high health risk. Ingredients to watch out for include:
- Phthalates, which add pliability, so hair spray doesn’t leave hair hard or brittle. Phthalates were in 14 out of 18 hair sprays tested in one study — but you may not know it from the label. Phthalates are exempt from federal labeling requirements if they’re claimed as a fragrance or as part of a trade secret formula. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors, which can affect how estrogen and other hormones act in the body, by blocking them or acting like them. This throws off the body’s hormonal balance. Animal studies have raised concerns that phthalates might increase breast cancer risk, but more research is needed before we can make a conclusion about their effect in humans, according to a 2011 Institute of Medicine report.
- Sunscreens are often ingredients in hair sprays, too, even if the label doesn’t make this clear. Like phthalates, chemical sunscreens such as octinoxate and oxybenzone are endocrine disruptors, so they’re considered potentially harmful. (For more information on sunscreen safety, see Have Fun in the Sun, But Protect Your Skin.
- Parabens are commonly used as preservatives in cosmetic products. They’re added to hair spray to preserve the product itself and to prevent damage to the can. Parabens can penetrate the skin and act like a very weak estrogen in the body. That means that they might interact with estrogen receptors and potentially turn on the growth of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers. Parabens have been found in breast tissue and breast cancers, as well as in many other tissues because of their wide use.
- Aerosol propellants (such as propane, isobutane, butane, and dimethylether) transfer the contents out of the can. These gaseous substances can affect the immune system, potentially decreasing your ability to fight infections or increasing your risk of autoimmune diseases or cancer. They also may trigger allergic reactions. The primary health hazard, though, is air pollution. Aerosol propellants contribute to ground-level ozone (a component of smog), greenhouse gas emissions, and indoor air pollution.
Non-aerosol pump hair sprays don’t use propellants, plus your overall exposure is lower compared to aerosols because you’re not inhaling as much. But even though you can avoid exposure to propellants using a non-aerosol hair spray, it may still contain other unwanted ingredients, such as chemicals in the fragrance.
If you’re looking to avoid most or all of the harmful ingredients in hair spray, check the EWG Skin Deep cosmetics database for the hair sprays with the lowest (zero or one) hazard ratings. If you can’t find these options at your local drug store, they’re available for purchase online.
You also can try making your own hair spray. Most do-it-yourself recipes combine lemon and water with a little clear alcohol, such as vodka (here’s a popular recipe). Aloe vera, which is in many commercial hair products, also is widely suggested for its hair-holding qualities.
In recent years, salons have started offering services that straighten hair for 3 to 6 months — far longer than a cloud of hair spray after flat ironing lasts. These treatments are the opposite of a permanent wave, using chemicals and heat to straighten hair instead of chemicals and curlers to curl it.
Hair straightening services are popular, even at price tags of up to $600, since they let you skip some of the steps that go into smoothing your hair. But straightening services aren’t very popular among health advocacy groups. That’s because many of these processes contain chemicals considered hazardous or potentially hazardous.
- Lye and no-lye hair relaxers are perhaps the original hair straighteners. Lye formulas use sodium hydroxide, which breaks the bonds within the hair shaft so that hair doesn’t curl. No-lye formulas tend to use a combination of calcium hydroxide and guanidine carbonate, which has a slightly weaker effect on the hair. Both lye and no-lye relaxers can irritate or injure skin, and both can enter the body through cuts or burns on the scalp. The ingredients aren’t known to cause cancer, but they are linked to a number of other health problems, including uterine fibroids. These relaxers also can damage hair, causing it to break and fall out.
- Thermal reconditioning (also known as Japanese straightening) arrived in the United States in the mid 1990s. The process changes the internal bond of the hair, making it super straight. Salon workers apply ammonium thioglycolate, the active ingredient, and then use a flat iron to permanently straighten the hair. Ammonium thioglycolate can affect the immune system, possibly resulting in lower ability to fend off infections, autoimmune diseases, or cancer, and may trigger allergic reactions. The industry-based Cosmetic Ingredient Review advises hair dressers to avoid or minimize skin exposure of this chemical.
- Keratin hair straightening (also known as Brazilian Blowout) has recently become a popular option in the United States. By sealing liquid keratin (a protein that’s naturally in your hair, nails, and skin) and a preservative solution into the hair with a flat iron, this service offers a lasting but non-permanent way to smooth the hair cuticle and relax the texture of the hair. It’s the least damaging of all the commercial straighteners, but it’s also highly likely to expose you to formaldehyde (through inhalation and skin contact) in the preservative solution. Formaldehyde is considered a carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which means it’s associated with an increased risk of cancer in people. Like ammonium thioglycolate, it can also be harmful to the immune system. Formaldehyde also can irritate the respiratory system and cause breathing problems. Be cautious — even if you’re considering a keratin hair straightener that claims to use little or no formaldehyde. In 2012, the EWG petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to investigate more than a dozen companies misrepresenting or hiding the formaldehyde content in their hair straightening products. If you get a keratin hair-straightening treatment, you can’t wash your hair for three days afterward. This means the solution that may contain formaldehyde is on your hair for three days. Even after it’s washed out, your hair continues to release formaldehyde and other chemicals in the straightening solution as it returns to its natural state over the next 12 weeks or so. We don’t know how much formaldehyde vapor straightened hair gives off over this time or exactly how it could affect your health.
Any of these hair straighteners also may contain other ingredients that may be hazardous to your health, such as parabens and phthalates, plus fragrances containing undisclosed mixtures of various chemicals. (As always, even products described as “all-natural” or “made with organic ingredients” still may contain hazardous ingredients.)
To be safe, the EWG recommends that you avoid all chemical hair straighteners and put your blow dryer and flat iron to work when you want straight hair. If you’re very attached to one of the chemical methods of hair straightening, try to use the least toxic process and go to a salon with good ventilation. Ask your hair stylist to use extra care to keep any of the chemical mixture off your scalp and skin and don’t keep the chemicals on your hair any longer than necessary. Try to stretch out the intervals between straightening processes for as long as you can stand it.
I like straight hair, but I’ve made peace with going curly most of the time. Anti-frizz cream helps. Wearing it up or back does the trick on off days. But when I go for the long wave, it takes me 30 minutes to use big hot curlers (easy to get on eBay) and 45 to 60 minutes for the flat iron/blowout combo. To make the extra effort worth it, I try to squeeze an extra day out of the style and skip washing my hair for a few days.
I’m also thinking about trying 100% argan oil. It can help reduce frizz and increase shine, and the EWG database gives it zero hazard rating. Have you tried it? Do you have any other tips for getting your hair to look the way you want it to?