GUIDE TO RELAXERS
Town, she is turning her vast knowledge of skin to studying hair. ‘Hair is just an extension of the skin, like nails,’ she says.
Her research includes understanding the environmental, genetic and mechanical causes (excessive combing, for example) that lead to hair loss. But it is the effect of harsh chemicals on our hair that is giving her most cause for concern. In the 12 months since the lab opened, her research has revealed frightening facts regarding the toxic and often illegal ingredients used in everyday cosmetics. One of her main concerns is the high concentration of formaldehyde used in some Brazilian keratin treatments, which can cause contact dermatitis, respiratory problems and cancer.
There are many kinds of alopecia affecting South Africans. Traction alopecia describes hair loss caused by hairstyles that constrict blood ow in the scalp – and tight braids are the culprit ‘I am always lecturing my patients and friends that it does not have to be tight,’ Nonhlanhla says. ‘The moment it’s painful, your body is telling you something is wrong. If you ignore the warning, you will lose that hair.’
Hair loss resulting from chemical use (relaxers and Brazilian straightening), heat styling and braids is called cosmetic alopecia and it’s one of the most common types affecting South African women, Nonhlanhla says, with around 33% of African women over the age of 18 affected. And it’s completely preventable. ‘What’s worse is that % of African six-year-old girls already show some evidence of hair loss.’
Relaxers are the main culprits of cosmetic alopecia, and combining them with hair dyes, especially ones with bleach or peroxide, worsens the situation. Relaxers work by increasing the natural pH of the hair from below six (acidic) to above 11 (alkaline). This breaks down the disulphide bonds (part of the primary structure of a protein) between the keratin, allowing the hair to be straightened. The hair is then combed straight and a neutralising shampoo used. The disulphide bonds will then reform with straight hair.
‘Some relaxers go up to a pH of 13 and 14,’ Nonhlanhla says. ‘That’s why people applying relaxers don’t touch it with their own hands – the product is too toxic; it will irritate the skin. And yet we are applying it to women’s heads.’ Consider this depilatory creams used to remove body hair have similar ingredients to hair relaxers. ‘The same ingredients used to remove hair are used to straighten hair; the concentration is just different.’
Though still in its early stages, she hopes her research could lead to the regulation of toxic or illegal ingredients and a decrease in women suffering from hair loss. Nonhlanhla has more to say about what can be done to save our hair. Based on your research, do you believe women should not be using relaxers? I have no problem with people who want to straighten their hair. Our role here is not to judge; our role is to protect people.As a doctor, I am interested in safety rst before product ef cacy. I want to make sure the product is going to be safe. We know so much now about hair as a protein, we know how to manipulate proteins, we know how to change them, we know how to reshape them and yet that knowledge has not yet come into the African hair market. . How close are you to nding safer alternatives to the ingredients found in straightening treatments? Some of my students are working on a project about safely manipulating hair texture. According to our research, an American inventor, Garrett Augustus Morgan, held the rst patent for a chemical hair straightener using sodium hydroxide as early as 1913. In 2016, we are still using sodium hydroxide or similar products. Everything has innovated, advanced and changed – so why are we using the same old ingredients? Do you think cosmetics should be more closely regulated? There are currently rules in place, however some companies are bringing products into the country knowing very well that they are illegal. The biggest problem is enforcement. We have been working hard on establishing a database of products for testing. We randomly buy products, catalogue then test them for illegal ingredients. The current focus is on illegal ingredients such as steroids, hydroquinone and mercury, which is often also used in skin lightening creams. With time, if we get adequate funding, we will have a facility within our Hair and Skin Research Lab where anyone can send a product for testing. What we need is a government programme of random testing of cosmetics for illegal ingredients. What can consumers do? Look out for toxic ingredients, such as hydroquinone or mercury. The problem is that these ingredients aren’t always shown on the label. Other ingredients to avoid are steroids look for betamethasone, cortisone and clobesol), which should not be available for everyday use. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned about hair? We are currently researching the use of hair to test for drugs, such as medication or antiretrovirals. All human hair incorporates anything circulating in the blood, such as toxins and chemicals, so depending on the length of someone’s hair, we can nd out what was taken three or four months ago. mc Ideally, relaxers should not be used because they cause so much damage but if you are going to use them, please do not use them on children – the percentage of chemical ingredients in children’s relaxers is just as high as those for adults. If you are going to use relaxers on previously relaxed hair, only relax the new growth. Relaxing previously processed hair will cause breakage. Never use a relaxer without washing off with a neutralising shampoo. Avoid using relaxers and hair dye together (or wait at least two weeks inbetween) – the combination of chemicals increases breakage. Avoid traction or pulling hairstyles like braids or weaves on relaxed hair. The hair is already weak and prone to breakage. Anyone who wears braids and dreadlocks and endures a painful hairstyle will eventually lose their hairline. (If you have a receding hairline and you don’t wear traction hairstyles, see your dermatologist to rule out frontal fibrosing alopecia, which is a different permanent type of hair loss.)