By Emma Ogutu
Susan Henry had run her Beverly Hills, Calif., hair salon for 30 years when she gradually began feeling sick.
First her eyes turned red and teary. Then she got severe sinus infections which spread to her chest, causing pains and irregular heartbeats. Soon, she developed full-blown asthma and her nervous system was failing. She ended up in the hospital.
After one year of constant trips to numerous doctors, she was diagnosed with severe ammonia poisoning. Like a thirsty sponge, her lungs had soaked up ammonia from vapors from the hair dyes and colors that had become the main tools in her trade.
When the doctors told her that her throat was swelling and narrowing, obstructing her upper airways, Henry knew she had to choose between her health and the job she had loved for three decades.
The ugly side of the beauty industry had caught up with her.
Stories like Henry’s have helped spur an eco-movement in an industry that’s been around since ancient civilization.
Most hair-care products contain substances like ammonia, potassium hydroxide, sodium hydroxide. Exposures to high concentrations of these chemicals can cause immediate burning of eyes, nose, throat and the respiratory tract and can cause blindness, lung damage or death, according to New York State’s Department of Health.
Hair relaxers, colors and dyes rank among the top consumer complaints for adverse and allergic reactions, including difficulty breathing, itching and swelling of the face, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors. These chemicals can be highly acidic, making them corrosive to body tissues and the environment.
“The complaints range from hair breakage to symptoms warranting emergency room visits,” says Lark Lambert, the office’s consumer complaint coordinator.
While the FDA has pre-market authority over color additives, it does not have to approve cosmetic products before they are sold. The safety of a cosmetic product lies in the hands of the manufacturer, according to the agency. If the agency receives complains that a product is dangerous, it can ask the company to recall it.
The agency can request that a federal court issue an injunction to prevent a dangerous product from being produced or sold. FDA spokesman Michael Herndon says it’s in company’s best interest to comply with an agency request.
“It’s brand name,” he says. “Recalling a potentially dangerous product shows that a company cares about its customers and wants to remove the product from the marketplace to prevent harm or to alert customers if the product is in the home.”
After receiving two complaints that nail polish remover and a gelatin-enriched conditioner made by Personal Care Products Inc. burned consumer’s fingers, the FDA and the company issued a joint warning about the products in April 2009.
In November 2007, the FDA issued a press release against an eyelash product that it said damaged nerves in the eye and could cause blindness. This warning came after doctors and patients noticed the eyelash growth product contained ingredients similar to those in prescription drugs for the eye disease glaucoma.
Consumers are increasingly avoiding chemicals in favor of natural ingredients in beauty products. Sales for natural skin care, hair care and cosmetics market totaled $5.8 billion in 2008, up from about $3.9 billion in 2003, according to the media research group TNS.
Aveda Corp. and Zerran Hair Care are two of the beauty product manufacturers carving a marketing niche with health and environmental-conscious consumers.
Minnesota-based Aveda has increased its use of organic, raw, herbal ingredients and oils by about 70 percent since 2000. The company buys oils extracted from argan trees from local cooperatives in southern Morocco. It gets a protein used in hair conditioner from Brazil nuts harvested in Peru through a partnership with Conservation International, a nonprofit that supports sustainable business in local communities while protecting its rainforest.
Zerran’s products are made from vegan sources, says spokesman Steve Saute. The company made sustainability and natural products part of its mission when clients requested a type of popular hair-straightening product that didn’t contain formaldehyde. An ingredient in many hair straighteners, formaldehyde exposure can cause severe allergic reactions of the skin, eyes and respiratory system, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Zerran redeveloped its reform hair relaxer from keratin, a plant-based protein.
“We found that a special blend of these proteins did just what the formaldehyde did in relaxers, but with no harmful effects,” Saute says.
Thirteen years have passed since Henry began her recovery, which included alternative healing medicines and detoxification to rid her body of built-up chemicals.
“My illness was like an epiphany,” Henry says by phone from her Beverly Hills, Calif. Beauty studio, where she specializes in hair coloring and highlights.
She researched where all the caustic hair chemicals ended after a busy salon day, and felt accountable for the role she had played in polluting the environment.
“These chemicals are washed down the drain, accumulating in waterways, soils and eventually the human bloodstream,” Henry says.
She made major changes to allow her to return to the job she loved, while protecting the environment. She switched from chemical to natural products, developing her own line of hair-care products using chemical-free, all-natural ingredients.
Henry produces most of her products from wheat germ, cloves, carnations and other plant and flower extracts. What she doesn’t produce herself, she buys from Zerran.
Henry says she interrogated Zerran for close to an hour before placing her first order of shampoos and conditioners.
“I just wanted to be sure that I did not purchase shampoos manufactured with sulfate,” she says. A cleanser in most shampoos and conditioners, sodium lauryl sulfate can lead to permanent eye damage and has been found to accumulate in the heart, liver, lungs and brains, posing serious potential health risks, according to the Journal of the American College of Toxicology.
Henry has become an advocate.
“We have to stop ruining our health and environment,” she says.
Her clients are also beginning to understand the need to use natural products.
She grooms many pregnant women who are concerned about exposing their unborn children to toxic fumes from hair chemicals. But most of her clients are cancer patients and survivors. They often come to Henry’s studio for her all-natural hair colors after their hair grows back white from chemotherapy.
“These clients are referred to me by their oncologists,” Henry says. “The medics understand too well the traumatic effects of chemicals in our lives.”
Emma Ogutu is a first-year master’s student studying environmental journalism at MSU. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.