by Ankita Nair
Five weeks before I started college, I walked into a hair salon with the intention of getting a keratin treatment. For years, I’d struggled to maintain my hair, which at the time was very curly, dry and frizzy. However as college move in day approached, I began to feel that my hair needed an intervention. After deciding between multiple treatments including Japanese straighteners, Brazilian blowouts, and agave treatments, I finally decided on getting a keratin treatment because I felt it would be the best fit for me and would not permanently alter or damage my hair if I decided not to follow up with more treatments. Curious to know more about what I would be putting in my hair, I asked my stylist for the name of the keratin product she would be using. When I looked up the product and its ingredients online, I learned that the product had been under international recall in France, Ireland, Canada, the European Union, and Australia because of significant levels of formaldehyde (Deike). I decided not to get the treatment that day, but as I walked out, I wondered how many women had gone forward, not knowing what they were exposing themselves to.
Of course, the product itself didn’t list formaldehyde as an ingredient and my stylist continued to assert that she did not treat her clients with products containing formaldehyde. However, when I took a closer look at the ingredient list of my keratin product I realized that the product had methylene glycol, a chemical that is itself not dangerous but has the potential to be when heat can cause it to convert to formaldehyde. This information was something the manufacturing company is not obligated to disclose (“Flat-Out Risky”) . Additionally, the toxicity of this keratin treatment would probably not have been discovered had there not been a sudden public outcry and interest in hair products after formaldehyde in Brazilian Blowouts was legally declared by the US government to be carcinogenic in 2011 (Harris).
During my time as a researcher for Chemical Entanglements, I’ve noticed a common theme when it comes to chemical companies hiding information about the toxic chemicals they use in their products (Scheer, Moss). Companies use murky terms like “fragrance” to hide the exact chemicals they put into their products or list a less harmful chemical derivative like methylene glycol to disguise that they are actually using more harmful chemicals like formaldehyde. They refuse to divulge all the chemicals they use claiming that the ingredients in their products are “trade secrets.” This lack of transparency can be really frustrating, dangerous, and, to some consumers, even extremely life threatening.
We are all being constantly exposed to carcinogens and our lifetime risk of acquiring illnesses like cancer has increased significantly over the last several decades (Stink!) . Additionally, individuals with severe chemical sensitivities and allergies have a greater risk of having severe allergic reactions (Joseph) that could to lead to hospitalization, or in some cases death (Silk). Though this is an issue that affects both genders, women seem to have disproportionately higher likelihood of reporting these health complications. On average, women tend to use more products with toxic chemicals (“Exposures Add Up”) . It is estimated that women now have a one in eight chance of acquiring breast cancer over their lifetimes (U.S. Breast Cancer Statistics).
There clearly is a need for the chemical industry to be more transparent about their ingredients, but so far legislative efforts to encourage this effort have largely fallen flat. Recently, then-President Obama signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act which required the EPA to test all 80,000 registered chemicals. However, such a process is estimated to take several years (centuries even) and will not produce results in a timely manner (Scialla).
Right now, it is up to consumers and society to be aware of toxic chemicals found in everyday products. As government regulations continue to lag behind addressing the chemical industry’s lack of transparency, individuals need to take on more responsibility and research the chemicals in their daily products. Websites like EcoWatch and the Environmental Working Group provide easily accessible information about harmful chemicals in commonly used household products. Furthermore, as consumers, we have the power to put economic pressure on companies to by choosing to buy less harmful products. Ultimately, we can not depend on regulations alone to push companies to be more transparent and redesign their products. Each of us must take action and strive daily to ensure that the chemicals around us do not end up making us deathly ill.
Ankita Nair is a UCLA undergraduate student majoring in Society and Genetics. She was part of the Chemical Entanglements Undergraduate Group during the 2016-2017 academic year.
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