Chemical Heads

By Dawn Fallik

Reprinted by permission of the Philadelphia Enquirer.

Those unpronounceable ingredients in hair-care products raise eyebrows about the effects on users and the environment.

Your hair is drab . Dull. Fine. Gone. Needs more volume. Needs less frizz. It needs something.

Maybe it needs cetyl alcohol. Mixed with a dash of propylene glycol, and how about a little butane?

Once upon a time, people lathered, rinsed, never repeated, and went on their merry bad-hair days. Then, science and chemistry specialized the way folks wax and pomade, condition and shine.

About 10 years ago, companies began creating new compounds so they could design products for specific hair types, for curls and fine hair and thick locks alike.

Now, some consumer groups worry about the mix of chemicals that meld into that sudsy rinse every morning. They point to incomplete labeling and little government oversight of the cosmetics and hair industry, accusations the Food and Drug Administration does not deny.

“The FDA needs to define what is safe to put in these products, and come up with standards,” says Tim Kropp, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit consumer organization in Washington that helped produce a study on problem ingredients in everyday products. “There are no safety standards in place.”

Independent analysts and hair-care executives say the products are safe. They say some ingredients may cause irritation in rare circumstances – but that the ingredients are not toxic.

“The good news is: Hair-care products are better than ever before,” says Paula Begoun, a former makeup artist who writes extensively about the cosmetics industry. “It’s really hard to buy a bad product, but you can get conned by products that are overpriced or bad for your hair.” There are many unrecognizable ingredients on a shampoo bottle label. Propylene glycol (which inhibits freezing). Ethylparaben (a preservative that prevents bacterial growth). Cyclopentasiloxane (smooths the hair).

It’s hard for a curly haired girl to figure out whether the ingredients back up what’s promised on the label and support the $25 price tag. Basically, all shampoos have the same recipe. Lathering agents. Cleansers. Preservatives. And fragrances. So do all conditioners. OK, maybe most of them don’t have butane, a pressurizing agent that helps force the mousse out of the can. (It doesn’t harm people, just the environment, Begoun says.)

The government doesn’t help consumers figure out the suds either. The ingredients used in cosmetics and hair-care products, unlike pharmaceuticals, have not been tested, so there’s no list of products for consumers to watch for, says Kropp of the Environmental Working Group.

“The companies do their own testing, but they don’t have to submit data to show it’s safe,” says Linda Katz, director of the FDA’s office of cosmetics and colors.

The government hears about problems from consumers and watches for trends before investigating a particular product.

Most reactions “are just rashes or local irritation,” Katz says. “Sometimes people complain that the product just made them look worse.”

Environmental groups worry about the cumulative effects of all the products people use, from shampoos and conditioners to floor cleaners. Tom Natan is a chemical engineer for the National Environmental Trust, an advocacy group that helped conduct a study in May on chemicals in everyday products. The study noted that a lot of the same chemicals appeared in many common products and that no one was studying those compounds.

“We don’t know very much about these chemicals, no one does,” Natan says.

There are some concerns about specific products; phthalates, for example, are found in fragrances (listed on most hair products as simply “fragrance”). Some studies have found that phthalates have caused cancer in rats. But companies do not have to list the ingredients of products purchased elsewhere, often fragrances or colors, according to FDA regulations.

Then there are the preservatives, the parabens, used to keep products from growing bacteria. Other studies, also in rats, have found a risk of disrupting the hormone system, says Begoun, author of Don’t Go Shopping for Hair-Care Products Without Me.

But even organic products can have some chemical ingredients.

“There is no such thing as a completely natural product,” says Begoun, who uses a dark-colored dye on her hair. “Should you avoid products that have parabens or phthalates? No one really knows.”

Many consumers say they don’t much care what’s in the bottle as long as their do does what they want it to do.

Victoria McCoy, 31, an interior designer in Center City, has ironed, permed, dyed and rolled her naturally thick, wavy, dark-brown hair. “There was one time I had highlights and they left the bleach on too long and then it turned out I was allergic to the bleach and all my hair fell out,” says McCoy, tressed in a nice, shoulder-length copperish-brown tone.

Now she dyes her hair about once a month, and uses fairly inexpensive shampoo and conditioner – L’Oreal Fresh Vive and Suave conditioner (at around $3.50 and $1.50 respectively) – and very expensive styling products – Texture’s curl creme and Texture shine ($14 and $12). “I finally have the right stylist to cut my hair and these are the products that work well,” McCoy says.

About 15 years ago , hair-care products underwent a revolution, partly due to the introduction of silicone. The silicone clings to the strands, taming and conditioning frizzy and dry hair without making it greasy. “As the baby boomer population comes of age, they have all different kinds of hair issues,” says Alan Meyer, vice president of research and design for L’Oreal, a division of Proctor & Gamble. “Younger consumers all want a unique kind of hairstyle, look for products with hold, to spike their hair.”

In the ’50s , it was all about hair spray and hold. In the ’60s, it was natural products. The ’70s brought the slicked-back look, and with the ’80s came mousse and styling gel. And then, in the mid-’90s, the number of options exploded.

Now there are shampoos that volumize (for that big-hair look) and ones that thicken; conditioners that detangle and others that calm. Styling products include gels and mousses, waxes and pomades, creams and serums, all for particular hair types.

Although you might need a chemistry degree to decipher the label, in general most alcohols – cetyl alcohol in particular – are fatty acids, used for thickening and coating. Glycerins attract water from the air and make hair feel fuller and give it bounce. Lanolin and other oils make hair feel smoother.

Kiehl’s, a New York-based company that promotes itself as using minimal amounts of chemicals, includes an “ingredient glossary” on its Web site so customers can look up what’s in their products.

“The key for consumers is to look at the ingredient list, because the first is what’s most in the product, and clearly whatever comes at the end, there’s not much of it in the product,” says Marie-Pierre Stark-Flora, assistant vice president for global product development at Kiehl’s.

The Environmental Working Group, which gave risk ratings to thousands of shaving creams, shampoos, colognes and lotions, says that no one shampoo, conditioner or styling product stood out as particularly toxic or worrisome. But hair dyes, especially the dark ones, were of some concern, the consumer group says.

For example, it rated Just For Men Shampoo-In Haircolor in Jet Black as a 9.5 out of 10 on the potential concern scale, because it includes coal tar dye. The dye has been linked to bladder cancer, but there have been no studies confirming a cause- and-effect relationship.

Consumers should be aware of the basics, particularly products to which they may be sensitive or allergic, Begoun says. People with sensitive skin should stay away from products with mint, for example.

“It’s difficult to talk ingredients with consumers,” she says. “How do you describe a cross-polymer or a styrene or an acrylamide? . . . You could style your hair for the rest of your life and not need to know.”

something to read in the shower
Here is a sampling of hair-care products with some of the ingredients they list on their labels, not necessarily in order of importance.

Garnier Fructis, Fortifying Cream Conditioner, fine hair Propylene glycol, methylparaben, among other ingredients.

L’Oreal Nature’s Therapy Perfect Curls Shampoo, for dry frizzy curls (also conditioner, gel and creme) Methylparaben, fragrance, cetyl alcohol, among other ingredients.

Kiehl’s Shine ‘N Lite Groom for Dull or Thick Hair Propylparaben, cholesterol, among other ingredients.

John Frieda Brilliant Brunette, Simply Sleek straightening balm Propylene glycol, phenyl trimethicone (a silicone), fragrance, methylparaben, among other ingredients.

Wella Color Preserve, Foam Mask Butane, propane, fragrance, methylparaben, among other ingredients.

what to look for
Alcohols: Some of them, such as cetyl alcohol, come from fatty acids, which make hair shine and reduce frizz. Others, such as methanol or isopropyl alcohol, can be drying and irritating. If you have dry skin, be careful.

Peppermint/menthol: They smell great, but can irritate skin.

Parabens: Used to prevent bacterial growth. They have been found to disrupt rats’ hormone systems, but it is not known whether they are harmful to humans.

Phthalates: Often listed simply as “fragrance” on labels, these chemicals have been cited as potential carcinogens. A few rat and mouse studies have linked them to cancer; a link has not been found in humans.

Coal tar: Used in some hair-coloring products, particularly dark colors, it has been linked in recent studies to various cancers. But according to the Food and Drug Administration, the link remains unclear. The agency suggests that consumers may want to use henna products, which are plant- or acetate-based.

For more information, or to search specific products, go to Environmental Working Group.

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