Is the Haircare Industry Sterilizing Women?

The Eugenics Movement and racist beliefs led to the involuntary sterilization of women of color in the United States in the twentieth century.



Black Women are potentially exposed to numerous hazardous chemicals through the hair products they use. Many of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors—substances that interfere with the body’s hormones, like estrogen causing sterilization. Much of the historic sterilization continued in many states until as late as the 1970s, showing how pervasive these racist notions were in the United States but is hair care the latest method being used to sterilize black women?. There are steps Black women can take to limit their exposures to toxic chemicals in hair products. Studies show products marketed to black women contain more toxic chemicals than those sold to other women, but the hair industry doesn’t have an answer as to why that is the case. In fact many of the chemicals in hair care products for black women cause cervical cancer, fibroids and infertility.


In fact the most popular hair products for black women and children contain “multiple toxic chemicals” identified in 80% of black hair products and they are not limited to causing cancer, obesity, asthma and infertility. Tests were conducted on 18 of the most popular hair products in the black hair care market and there were divided into six different categories:

  • Hot oil treatment

  • Anti frizz

  • Leave in conditioner

  • Root stimulator

  • Hair Lotion

  • Relaxer


Of the 18 tested products, 80% contained an alarming number of hormone disrupting chemicals, known as parabens, which are used as preservatives and mimic estrogen, increasing the risk of cancer, weight gain and reduced muscle mass. The research noted a correlation between the exposure of toxic chemicals in hair oil and relaxers and the rising trend of black women and children suffering from asthma, early menstruation, infertility, uterine fibroids, premature birth and breast and endometrial cancers. Further, 11 of the 18 products analyzed contained chemicals that are banned under the international cosmetic regulations because of their links to cancer and infertility. The tests also revealed that 84% of the chemicals that were detected in the products were not listed on the products labels.


  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) – a lathering agent that is used in most shampoos. This is a potent de-greaser that binds to the dirt and grease on your scalp. After you rinse your hair the grime is drawn down the drain by SLS. However, after rinsing, it is not uncommon for remnants of SLS to remain on the scalp and because it is such a potent chemical (it is also used in detergents that clean garage floors, such is its strength) it will strip your skin of its vital oils, causing dryness. Also, when open hair follicles are exposed to SLS through repeated hair washing, the harsh chemical kills the hair follicles causing balding.

  • Diethanolamine (DEA), Momoethanolamine (MEA), Triethanolamine (TEA) – these are disrupting chemicals that can cause cancer and hair loss. DEA, MEA and TEA are potential irritants which can cause scalp inflammation or allergic reactions, making hair thin or brittle and prone to breakage.

  • FD & C Color Pigments – can irritate the skin and increase skin sensitivity, as well as striping the hair of the oxygen it needs to grow.


A lot of the products most damaging were marketed toward black children.The hair products tested contained 45 endocrine disrupting or asthma-associated chemicals, including every targeted chemical class. These included cyclosiloxanes, parabens, and the fragrance marker diethyl phthalate (DEP) at the highest levels, and DEP most frequently. Root stimulators, hair lotions, and relaxers frequently contained nonylphenols, parabens, and fragrances; anti-frizz products contained cyclosiloxanes.


Hair relaxers for children contained five chemicals regulated by California’s Proposition 65 [a 1986 law enacted to protect drinking water in the state from contamination from chemicals known to cause cancer, and reproductive issues] chemicals or prohibited by EU cosmetics regulation. Targeted chemicals were generally not listed on the product label. ”Higher levels of parabens were found in products targeted to black women compared to white women, the study uncovered. Additionally, research suggests that exposure to toxic chemicals in hair oils and relaxers could be directly linked to a “higher prevalence” of asthma in black girls and women, as well as early menstruation, fertility issues, obesity, uterine fibroids, and premature birth rates, along with increased cases of breast and endometrial cancers. This isn’t the first time that perilous ingredients in black hair care products have been exposed. In 2016, Black Women for Wellness concluded a five-year study that found similar results.


The study of more than 1,100 hair products marketed toward black consumers revealed a shocking bias in the products’ chemical composition. Less than one in four products tested “low hazard” for the inclusion of dangerous ingredients, with most containing toxic chemicals that can potentially cause cancer or developmental and reproductive damage, phthalates that disrupt hormones, and trigger other adverse health effects. Toxic ingredients such as lye (found in relaxers) and formaldehyde (found in keratin straightening treatments and Brazilian blowouts) are still commonly used in black hair salons.


Largely toothless federal regulation has made it easy for the cosmetics industry to get away with using highly toxic ingredients. The only government oversight comes from the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1967, which are supposed to safeguard the American people from misbranding. Yet neither of these acts require cosmetic products to undergo FDA approval before hitting the market. Terms like natural and organic are highly subjective scientifically, and clever wording allows companies to slip in all kinds of dangerous chemicals.


“There are a lot of chemicals in the periodic table that are technically ‘natural,’” Ammonia is natural. Alcohol is natural. Companies will put a little bit of aloe or olive oil into a product and call it organic—but all the bad stuff is still there too.” Case in point: Relaxers, by far the most hazardous product tested, are now branded by cosmetic companies as safe if they contain no lye, yet the analysis found that many companies merely replaced the lye with calcium hydroxide, a caustic irritant. While hashtags and social media campaigns within the black community are helping to raise awareness of harmful products, the companies themselves face no threat of litigation. This forces black women to go with only two options: buy only products from black owned companies that have a guarantee and written policy for safe ingredients that have been vetted. Or go completely natural!