True Roots

One woman quits coloring her gray hair and investigates the human and environmental costs of this contentious female beauty standard.

Ronnie Citron-Fink | True Roots | Island Press | June 2019 | 34 minutes (5.655 words)

 

How’d You do it? Are you doing that on purpose? Are you okay? Ever since I stopped coloring my silver hair, I’ve gotten a lot of questions. One of the most common during my hair transition was Why are you letting it go gray? While my roots didn’t ask permission before they stopped growing in dark brown, it was a complex mix of fear and determination that rearranged my beauty priorities. The question of why — why, after twenty-five years of using chemical dyes, I gave them up-is something I’ve thought about a lot.

My world began to shift four years ago. I was sitting in a meeting about toxics reform in Washington, DC, when an environmental scientist began to describe the buildup of chemicals in our bodies. As she rattled off a list of ingredients in personal care products-toluene, benzophenone, stearates, triclosan — my scalp started to tingle. “We’re just beginning to understand how these chemicals compromise long-term health,” she concluded.

None of this was new information. As a journalist, I report on the intersection of health and the environment.

I know that the soaps, shampoos, and lotions we use every day have been linked to threats such as hormone disruption, birth defects, and cancer. I know that since World War II, more than eighty thousand new chemicals have been invented. And while most people assume that the chemicals in our products have been tested and proven safe, I know that isn’t the case. Time and time again, I’ve seen regulators fail to protect the health of citizens. Yet all that knowing didn’t stop me from availing myself of the alchemical wonders of hair dye.

Frankly, coloring just seemed normal. My mother still dyed her hair a coppery brown at age eighty-eight, my best friend went to the colorist every few weeks, and even my daughter dabbled with highlights. It’s no surprise that I didn’t — and still don’t — know many women who forgo coloring; 75 percent of women in the United States use hair dye. Like many, I colored with the hope of “natural­looking” hair, spending hours and hours, and thousands of dollars per year, at the salon.

Over the years, I’d pushed aside fears about the possible dangers of dye. After visits to the hairdresser, my scalp would itch, which I chalked up to dryness, and I would get headaches, which I blamed, like almost all other ailments during my childbearing years, on hormones. When I scratched my head, dye would stain my fingernails for days after application. A small price to pay for beauty, I rationalized. I simply did not want to think about the noxiously charged question Is hair dye safe?

While most people assume that the chemicals in our products have been tested and proven safe, I know that isn’t the case.

A young colleague at the toxics meeting was more skeptical. Wiping the lipstick from her unlined lips, she asked, “Why do we subject our bodies to questionable chemicals?”

I could personally attest to the scientist’s answer: “People ignore potential risks for convenience, cost, beauty. Many of these products promise a fountain of youth.”

After the presentation, our group of mostly women discussed the health compromises people make “to look young and feel good.” Scanning a handout with a long list of chemicals in personal care products, I decided it was past time to stop burying my beautifully dyed head in the sand. “How do I go about researching the toxicity of hair dye and its effects on me and others?” I asked.

“The economic success of hair coloring collides so powerfully with popular demand that the task of understanding the landscape goes beyond science and law,” she said. “Investigate that, and you’ll find some answers that address the safety of hair dye.”

The scientist’s answer led me to the journey that would become this book.

It turns out, It’s not haircuts, blowouts, or styling that drives the salon business. It’s professional coloring. In fact, the industry refers to hair color as “the vital anchor service” that draws customers to salons across the United States. Once there, women often spring for cuts, perms, straightening, and other treatments. But color is the core mainstay. And, according to a 2018 InStyle survey of almost 1,500 women, hair color services are up; only 7 percent of the respondents were dye free. The reason for the upswing? Baby boomers in need of covering gray hair.

Hairdressers play a unique role in the salon business: part hair worker, part therapist, and part guardian of secrets hidden under colored locks. Does she or doesn’t she? As with other beauty services, the relationships between customers and hairdressers are built on a delicate web of loyalty and trust. Most women pick salons and stylists very carefully, since this intimate bond can last for years.

At the time I decided to stop coloring, my go-to gal for all things hair was Heather. I inherited Heather from her lovely mild-mannered aunt and ex-military husband turned mountain man. This breezy hairdressing duo had tenderly clipped my babies’ soft curls as they squirmed in my lap, tamed my husband’s ultracurly locks, and set me on a colorful path for covering my grays. In their haircutting heyday, we were entwined in each other’s lives, exchanging support throughout almost two decades.

What attracted me to this hairdressing clan was their sincere passion for all things “natural.” In fact, they named their salon Supernatural before it was even a riff on Carlos Santana’s guitar. At the time, Supernatural seemed a beacon among the local salons because it was one of the first of its kind to dish out Aveda hair color. Lured by promises of “96 percent naturally derived, essentially damage-free” color, I found my groove with Aveda color and products.

Now, having finally figured out that “natural permanent color” was an oxymoron, I knew I was looking at a two- to three-year hair transformation. I needed Heather to throw out her standard rulebook, develop a transition plan, and help me get to gray. But I worried that my new approach to natural beauty would test our relationship.

I sure hoped I wouldn’t encounter something like the sparks that recently flew when the United Kingdom’s leading celebrity hairdresser, Nicky Clarke, shamed the Duchess of Cambridge for stepping out with a couple of inches of gray roots catching the sunlight. Opining in the pages of the Daily Mail, Nicky wrote, “Until you’re really old, you can’t be seen to have any grey hairs.” Except if you’re a man. “Men can go grey in their mid-50s and still be considered attractive,” Nicky claimed, citing the whole “Silver Fox thing.” But Nicky didn’t see it the same way for women. A few strands of gray would surely knock the duchess off her style icon pedestal. He concluded, “I highly recommend that she cover it up. I hate grey hair.” Ouch.

Sarah Harris, a silver-haired editor for British Vogue, snapped back, “To cast such trite aspersions is like saying that women can’t have long hair the other side of 40.” Sarah countered Nicky’s low blow, referring to him as a fifty-seven-year-old man who shouldn’t be allowed to have “a blond, flowing, tonged (?), highlighted(?), backcombed (!) bouffant, whether they’re a celebrity hairdresser or otherwise.” Double ouch.

Wanting to keep that kind of flap on the other side of the pond, I braced myself as I stepped into the salon. I was instantly surrounded by the familiar buzz of hair dryers, the whiff of chemicals, and the sight of those creepy circle swatches of artificial hair in various shades. All of it now seemed like the choreography of an old, out-of-step dance.


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In the mirror behind the half wall, I could see Heather in cape and gloves, slapping her magic wand into the brackish glop in preparation for my root covering. With her amazing chop shop skills, long bluish-black hair, and permanently stained fingers, multi-talented Heather had endured women’s hair obsessions since she was a teenager. What I loved most was how she took her time and executed my wishes with razor-like precision.

“Just a trim today; I’d like to stop coloring.” I held my breath as Heather intensely examined my roots. Those roots. The ones that would start growing the minute I walked out the door.

“How and why would you like to do that?” she asked sweetly, taking her gloves off and staring down at her raw hands as though I hadn’t just thrown a Molotov cocktail into the world of bottled hair color.

Looking around for answers, I noticed a youthquake of models in silky, sexy hair posters on the walls, enticing me to embrace “vibrant, fade-resistant color with amazing shine.” I thought of legendary fashion designer Miuccia Prada’s comment that women try to tame themselves when they get older, but instead they should strive to be wilder.

Where were the fashionable older women who had recently graced the Style section of the New York Times? The interesting ones described as “women who have fun. [Gray hair] reflects their confidence, their ease with being who they are.”

With resistance mounting, it dawned on me that I had been reading those posters for years, and yet I had never asked to examine the ingredients in my own hair dye.

* * *

“Follow the chemicals, and then decide if it’s worth the gamble, “advised my father-in-law, a retired chemist, when I told him I was thinking about shutting down the color.

His words replayed in my head as I read the chemical names on the safety data sheet of my hair color. In retrospect, I really wasn’t sure how I had managed this level of denial-me, the environmental activist who reads every label like an FBI agent reopening a cold case, poring over it for new clues. Why hadn’t I asked to read the ingredient list sooner?

… phenylenediaminepersulfoteshydrogenperoxideleadacetatetoluene …

The words on the sheet bled together, tumbling into one chaotic blur. In my tunnel vision, I could barely hear Heather’s transition plan. As she combed through my dark strands, uncovering a one-inch seedbed of gray, I worried about hair dye’s effect not only on my own body but also on hers. Styling hair is the equivalent of working in a chemistry lab. I couldn’t help thinking about the old adage “The dose makes the poison.” Heather inhaled these chemicals every day, they were absorbed by her skin, yet she didn’t recognize the risk.

But I knew. I knew because as editorial director of Moms Clean Air Force, a million-plus member special project of the Environmental Defense Fund, I received a daily stream of aggregated news about toxic chemicals.

As she combed through my dark strands, uncovering a one-inch seedbed of gray, I worried about hair dye’s effect not only on my own body but also on hers. Styling hair is the equivalent of working in a chemistry lab.

I’ve learned that in the United States, over 85,000 chemicals make their way into our bodies. They come from contaminated water, pesticides in food, air pollution, household cleaners, and personal care products. While Canada and the European Union have banned over 1,300 ingredients from use in cosmetics (including some hair dyes), the United States has banned only 11.

From mercury in mascara to styrene in maxi pads, toxic chemicals in products expose women to over 100 chemicals each day through personal care products. Those small daily exposures can lead to chemical buildup in our bodies.

When I made my decision to stop coloring, I printed out a groundbreaking 2014 report from Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) titled “Beauty and Its Beast,” and tucked it into a file. It highlights decades of research on hair salons, including the harmful chemicals in hair products and how they impact a predominately female workforce.

A toxic brew of chemicals is commonly found in the air of indoor salons, which generally have little or no ventilation. This shouldn’t be surprising, given the ingredients in hair products, including formaldehyde (known carcinogen), toluene (neurological and developmental toxicant), sodium hydroxide (lye), and triphenyl phosphate (suspected endocrine disruptor).

Surveys have found that 60 percent of salon workers who work with hair dyes, bleaches, and permanent wave solutions suffer from skin conditions, such as dermatitis on their hands, starting as far back as cosmetology school training. Heather’s stained hands. Salon workers also tend to have higher rates of miscarriages, gestational diabetes, and babies with birth defects. And they have a greater risk of dying from neurological conditions including Alzheimer’s disease, presenile dementia, and motor neuron disease.

Each threat to hairdressers’ health is serious, but one stands out from the rest: cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has found that “occupational exposures as a hairdresser or barber are probably carcinogenic to humans.” Other studies have found that hairdressers were three times more likely to get breast cancer than women in other occupations and five times more likely to get bladder cancer than the general population. And that risk is even higher for black women. Other increased cancer risks included lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, and multiple myeloma.

* * *

While Heather faces increased risks from exposure to dyes day in and day out, the statistics for customers like me are hardly more encouraging. For instance, a University of Southern California study found that women who had colored their hair once per month for fifteen years or more had a 50 percent higher risk of bladder cancer. And it turns out that the color you choose plays a role in the level of danger the dye poses.

The deep-brown shade that gave me such pride as a teenager can be particularly harmful when it comes from a dye bottle. Many dark dyes, sometimes called coal-tar dyes, include para-phenylenediamine (PPD), a chemical substance derived from petroleum. These dyes date back to the turn of the twentieth century. In the late 1800s, it was discovered that hydrogen peroxide could be used as a bleaching agent, paving the way for women (and a few men) to enter the world of commercial hair color. French chemist Eugene Schueller based his 1907 hair color invention on PPD, which, when oxidized, turned the hair black. Ironically, the name of Schueller’s company was the French Harmless Hair Dye Company, later changed to L’Oreal. The first company to use PPDs in the United States was Clairol.

Today, not much has changed. PPD, which is also used in antifreeze, is still found in most permanent hair color; a similar compound, para-toluenediamine (PTD), is some­ times added instead. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep website, a database of ingredients in more than 41,000 personal care products, rates PPD a seven out of ten in terms of toxicity.

Dark dyes, along with chemical relaxers, have put African American women at increased risk. According to a 2017 study of more than 4,000 women, conducted by researchers at Rutgers University, use of dark dyes by black women was associated with a 51 percent increased overall risk of breast cancer — and a 72 percent increased risk of estrogen receptor positive breast cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) adds that African American women are 34 percent more likely than white women to die of breast cancer.

From mercury in mascara to styrene in maxi pads, toxic chemicals in products expose women to over 100 chemicals each day through personal care products.

In addition to increasing cancer risk, PPD can trigger itchiness, redness, irritation, and even fatal anaphylactic reactions. And even if you’ve been using the same hair color with no ill effects for years, or, conversely, if it’s the first time you’ve ever tried hair color, the reaction can be severe.

In my early forties, a few years after I started dyeing, I developed unexplained allergies. My symptoms ran the gamut from hives to rashes to exercise-induced asthma to dangerous anaphylactic reactions. Connected? When I asked the allergist, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “You’re a healthy girl with a bad problem.” We were never able to get to the root of it. Now I carry an EpiPen with me at all times, and I’ve suspected my intense coloring routine may have played a role in triggering my allergies.

During the twentieth century, allergic reactions to PPD became so common that its use in hair dyes was banned in Germany, France, and Sweden. Yet it is still used in 80 to 90 percent of hair dyes in US salons and drugstores. In an article in US News and World Report titled ”Are You Allergic to Hair Dye?” Dr. Andrew Scheman, an associate professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University, is quoted as saying that even most so-called natural hair dyes on the market are really just gimmicks. “They’re not natural at all,” he says. Like other hair dyes, he explains, many brands that claim to be natural contain PPD with a few extra botanical ingredients thrown in.

Bob Hefford, a former chemist for Clairol and Unilever, admits, “It it most probably true that if these materials [PPD and its cousin PTD] were invented today, their use in cosmetics would not be permitted but they remain in use as no effective replacements have been found.”

If certain chemicals present a clear danger to the health of hair salon workers and their clients, particularly those using dark dyes, it seems we could simply avoid using them. Unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward. While manufacturers of consumer cosmetics are legally required to print their ingredients on the label, makers of professional cosmetics do not have to disclose their ingredients. Instead, they’re required to produce safety data sheets, which may or may not present the whole story.

According to the “Beauty and Its Beast” report, some safety data sheets are comprehensive, but those are “few and far between.” And there is little enforcement to ensure the sheets have all the health information that hairstylists and customers need. I noticed that the print on my hair dye safety data sheet was so tiny that it was almost impossible to read without a magnifying glass, even with my glasses on.

Without the advantage of industry transparency, neither hairdressers nor their clients know what they are being exposed to, even as their bodies may be exhibiting an array of documented maladies. While the details may be hidden from women, many are now catching on to the threat. Researchers at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine analyzed complaints made to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) between 2004 and 2016 about adverse reactions to products and found that hair care products topped the list for women. Reports of serious health issues were also significantly higher than average for hair care and hair color products.

* * *

With the alarming “Beauty and Its Beast” report fresh in my mind, I was finally feeling like I could rise above this toxic cloud. I was committed to my decision and began to see the silver lining. But before I had a chance to tell Heather about my light bulb moment, my new hair mantra — the upkeep, the cost, the chemicals, and some of these other hair-raising tidbits, she unfurled a challenge.

“You have two choices. Lowlights or chop? Ronnie …,” she said with an intimacy that brought on goosebumps, “you’re all about your long hair, and growing in gray hair will wash out your complexion. So I suggest we give you a multi-tonal effect, a few lowlights and a shorter cut. You don’t want to look like you’ve given up, do you?”

Oh boy, here we go again. Each time someone mentions “giving up,” an unmistakable queasiness takes over, threatening to flatten me. Heather held an outsize role in my beauty, in my life. Forcing myself to listen to her “plan,” I could tell she was trying to convince me that one false step could send me down an endless spiral of bad hair days. All of which were a warning sure to age me light-years.

I worried about knocking her off balance. Since we’ve had such a close bond, Heather’s told me about how hard her life has been as a single parent, trying to keep her young daughter fed, clothed, and sheltered. In that moment, I envisioned the little phoebe bird that each year builds its nest in one of the light fixtures outside our front door. I marvel that this small creature chooses such a busy location; each time the screen door slams, she flits from her nest. When the summer sky opens to a deluge of windswept water, threatening to blow the little nest to smithereens, Phoebe sticks her chest out and stands strong. Despite all the disturbances, she keeps showing up year after year to tend to her latest brood. Their wide-open beaks and tiny fluffy bodies depend solely on her, their meal ticket until they take flight to fend for themselves.

Afraid of losing my nerve, I blurted, perhaps a little too loudly, “I’ll just let it grow out! Natural. No color.” Even over the drone of blow-dryers, heads turned.

To soften the blow, I decided to relinquish some control. As a consolation prize, I let Heather apply copious amounts of products (no dye) before she ran over to the appointment desk to scratch out a year’s worth of biweekly touch-ups.

Perplexed, the velvety-haired receptionist asked, “Why? Ronnie loved her hair color. It made her look so much younger.”

“Her hair stopped loving her back,” I heard Heather whisper. She shook her head as she stared down at the appointment book.

As I left the hustle and bustle of the salon, traipsing down the long flight of stairs that led out to the street, I heard the receptionist’s voice trail off.” Did you remind her of the cancellation policy?”

I should have known that asking a hair colorist, particularly one who depends on a revolving clientele, to stop coloring my hair would be like asking a candy shop owner if you should give up chocolate.

Leaving with just a sticky trim, I realized that my journey from my high-maintenance color to “natural” (whatever that was) had begun. Without the security of the salon, it would be only a matter of days before a skunk line took up residence on my part. It was scary but also intensely freeing. I repeated my mantra — the upkeep, the cost, the chemicals — willing the dye to loosen its magic grip on my psyche. Thus I ended my long love affair with hair color.

And so, during this season of uncoloring, in the run up to sixty, I did not set foot in a salon except for the occasional blowout. Instead, armed with a kaleidoscope of questions, I focused on the safety of hair dye, hoping my newfound knowledge would help pull me through the long “how to do it” phase. As luck would have it, gray hair seemed to be on the cusp of a transformational cultural moment for women. The next step was practical. I needed to find a new hairdresser willing to embrace what I knew in my heart would lead to a healthier hair story. I needed one ASAP.

* * *

In Diane Keaton’s autobiography, Let’s just Say It Wasn’t Pretty, she spills the beans on a few of her former lovers. In a passage about Warren Beatty, who played the sexy hairdresser in the 1975 film Shampoo, she says, “Warren used to pontificate on the subject for hours, insisting that hairdressers were worth their weight in gold. According to him, hair was, in fact, 60 percent of good looks.”

I required a passionate hairdresser (hold the sex) who understood that in the golden land of women’s beauty, hair occupies the prime location. And I needed one who respected women who chose to go natural. I found him amid the squash blossoms and shishito peppers at my local farmer’s market. Richard, with his longish black hair and dark-framed glasses, came to my rescue via an acquaintance. Noticing that my graying hair was in need of pruning, she exclaimed, in the middle of the market, at the top of her lungs, “I’ve got just the guy for you.” Living in a small town has its interesting moments. This was one of them as all eyes focused on me and the wheel of the gossip mill began to spin.

Richard became the epicenter of my hair transition. He had incredible styling cred, including stints at Oribe and Sally Hershberger, and was then working in New York City’s Bumble and Bumble salon. Plus, he knew how to soothe women’s hair obsessions. But that’s not the very best thing about Richard. Amazingly, Richard made house calls! His best friend lived near my town in the Hudson Valley of New York, and Richard visited every month or so to grab a beer with his friend and cut a few “freelance” clients. When he came to my home in the woods every five to six weeks to chop away at the dead dyed ends, I would drag out a private Pinterest “Silver” inspiration board loaded up with photos of chic gray haircuts. Sans judgment, Richard would examine my favorite photos and cheerfully exclaim, “That would work!” When it comes to silver hair, he’s a fan of any length, “as long as it doesn’t look witchy.” He assured me, “You’ll be able to carry off most lengths during your transition. So you’ll have no need to pull out the broomstick.”

In front of the mirror, in the privacy of my bathroom, as my hair ever so slowly transitioned from darkest brown to silver, Richard and I discussed much: his younger girl­ friend, whom he’d like to marry; child-rearing through the ages (he’s a divorced dad of a school-age girl — I’m an empty nester with two twenty-somethings); meeting his idol, Bruce Springsteen, at a runway show (Richard’s a hardcore New Jersey guy); Meg Ryan’s choppy short hair. Who knew it was so thick? How does he know? “Dish,” I plead. When I test him tepidly, asking whether I should get the show on the road and cut really short, he knows I can’t. Or maybe he just doesn’t want to see me cry? Richard has become my Warren Beatty-worth his weight in gold-minus the tight pants and philandering.

* * *

One day when I was sitting on a stool in front of the mirror while Richard piloted his scissors, elbowing around my small bathroom, he mentioned that he hadn’t been feeling well. He had developed asthma a while ago. He was quitting his latest job at a salon in Brooklyn and moving upstate to be closer to his daughter.

Cut off from the drama of the salon scene, Richard and I discussed my latest hair obsession: toxic chemicals in the salon biz. By that point, the scary statistics had become firmly wedged into my consciousness, and I couldn’t help but make the connection between hair treatments and his ailment. He was unaware that the keratin straightening treatment that he’d been applying to women’s hair contains formaldehyde. The chemical is a potent allergen that is severely irritating to the eyes, nose, lungs, and throat, and long-term exposure has been linked to an increased risk of cancer.

My best friend, Cathy, had been toying on and off for years with trying out professional straightening products to transform her curly hair. At the time, I did some preliminary research and learned that smooth, frizz-free hair can last up to twelve weeks, but it comes with a risk. The most popular brand, Brazilian Blowout, contains formaldehyde, which is released as the hair is heated with dryers or curling irons.

I emailed both Cathy and Richard the “Beauty and Its Beast” report fact sheet. It specifically states that hairdressers have measured decreased lung function and higher risks of developing asthma. Cathy, a nurse, changed her mind and decided to forgo the risk. Richard promised to share the fact sheet with his colleagues because the list of other illnesses is also frightening: miscarriages, neurological disorders, immune disorders, dermatitis, depression, and cancer.

“How can ‘they’ let this health threat happen?” Richard asked incredulously. I told him the simple answer: “Because it’s not a regulated industry, so anything goes. Someone has to get sick before the FDA can do anything.”

‘How can ‘they’ let this health threat happen?’ Richard asked incredulously.

Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) have been working to get the FDA to join California, Oregon, Canada, France, and Ireland in taking action against hair products such as Brazilian Blowout. They would like to legislate the removal of products with dangerous levels of formaldehyde.

“Salon workers have particularly suffered due to symptoms associated with these products, with many reporting long-term health problems,” said Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research for WVE. When the health risks of using Brazilian Blowout were brought to the FDA’s attention in 2008, the agency did nothing. Scranton finds this unconscionable.

Kathy Langford, a professional hairstylist from Bran­ don, Florida, points out that both hairdressers and clients are “exposed to the noxious fumes when these products are heated.” And Kelly Merriman, a stylist from Joliet, Illinois, worries that when her clients return home after a treatment, they will unknowingly expose their children to formaldehyde.

If this isn’t terrifying enough, these straightening products are labeled for professional use only. Regulation of professional products is stunningly lax, as companies are not required to list their ingredients on those safety data sheets. In the case of Brazilian Blowout, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is investigating questions and complaints from hair salon owners and workers about possible formaldehyde exposure. And the FDA issued a warning letter to the importer and distributor. The letter identified the product as adulterated and misbranded because it contains methylene glycol, which can release formaldehyde during normal conditions of use, and because the label makes misleading statements (“Formaldehyde Free” or “No Formaldehyde”).

Once a person becomes sensitive to formaldehyde, even a low-level exposure to the chemical can cause the body to react, and the sensitization may not be reversible. Had Richard become sensitized to those chemicals? Certainly the methylene glycol solution that he inhaled may have caused the onset of his asthma.

After a period of being voluntarily out of work and freelancing, Richard has decided to follow his dream and open a barbershop that provides no chemical processes — no Brazilian Blowouts, no hair extensions, and no hair dye.

“I’m going to call the new shop Barber and Brew,” he tells me.” Men and women can come in for a cut and a beer. A simple, slow hair approach with a happy ending — a local handcrafted beer.”

It sounds dreamy, and I encourage him to go for it. But I wonder why he won’t provide hair extensions. Then I realize I know almost nothing about them, except that I have a friend who miraculously went from shoulder-length to down-to-her-waist-length hair. I also remember reading in a tabloid a few years ago (at the salon!) that the woman who looks like she’s never had a bad hair day in her life, Jennifer Aniston — a certified hair icon-had chopped off her long — layered hair for an angled bob because her real hair was getting thinned out and damaged by hair extensions. Who knew that wasn’t all her gorgeous hair?

I ask Richard why he won’t apply hair extensions. He shakes his head and grimaces.” They can smell bad.” While there’s a laundry list of toxic substances spewing from hair salons, glue wasn’t one I had considered. But it is one of the ways the extensions are attached to natural hair. (Extensions can also be keratin bonded, sewn or woven in, or clipped or taped on.)

Regulation of professional products is stunningly lax, as companies are not required to list their ingredients on those safety data sheets.

“Some glues contain styrene, which is a carcinogen,” says Jamie McConnell, director of programs and policy for WVE. She also mentions other chemicals, trichloroethylene and dioxanes, that can damage the liver and kidneys, but she qualifies this by saying that not all extensions contain them. You need to be savvy and ask for the safety data sheets. If you can’t find one, consider that a red flag.

With warning flags flying high all over salons, how is exposure to multiple chemicals affecting stylists and customers? Dr. Bruce Lanphear, an environmental health expert, says we need to take seriously the question of whether or not safe levels exist. Even low levels of some chemicals appear to be “proportionally more harmful to a person’s health.” In a new study reported in Environmental Health News, not only are there no apparent safe levels or thresholds of some of the most common, extensively tested chemicals, such as radon, lead, particulate matter, asbestos, tobacco, and benzene-but also at the lowest levels of exposure, there is a steeper increase of risk. Dr. Lanphear argues that most health and regulatory agencies are not fully protecting public health because they don’t target people who have low to moderate exposures.

So maybe the dose does not always make the poison? Leah Segedie, author of Green Enough, explains: “In recent years, more and more cases have been discovered — particularly with endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) — where the effects do not follow this pattern. In some cases, the lowest dose tested has huge adverse effects, whereas a much higher dose has no impact at all.” She goes on to note that EDCs have effects at low doses that are not predicted by effects at higher doses. And this is important because those who test and regulate chemicals for safety apply the adage “the dose makes the poison” with the assumption a low dose is less harmful.

If manufacturers are not required to provide their products’ safety information to the FDA, that leaves salons, hairdressers, and consumers to vet and fend for themselves. Then they must evaluate whether or not the risk is worth it.

Right now, the chemicals in hair dye, straightening products, and other hair products carry both known and unknown potential health hazards. But the tea leaves show a tale of body pollution that could lead to disease. So, is it impossible to believe that quitting hair dye will make me less vulnerable? I’ll have to live with that question to find out.

In the meantime, with Santana’s “Smooth” humming around my head, I’ve doubled down my resolve to stay super natural … “You got the kind of lovin’ that can be so smooth. Give me your heart, make it real, or else forget about it.”

***

Ronnie Citron-Fink is the editorial director for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Moms Clean Air Force, a national organization of over a million people uniting to protect children’s health by combating the urgent crisis of climate change. A contributor to A Glorious Freedom: On Being a Woman, Getting Older, and Living an Extraordinary Life, her writing has appeared in USA Today, Huffington Post, Mother Nature News, and InStyle.

Excerpted from True Roots: What Quitting Hair Dye Taught Me about Health and Beauty, by Ronnie Citron-Fink. Copyright © 2019 Ronnie Citron-Fink. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, DC.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath