Phthalate exposure is linked to multiple health problems including birth and reproduction problems, impaired brain development, diabetes, and cancer. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors— meaning they alter the proper functioning of your hormones. Emerging studies also suggest that phthalate exposure could increase the risk of developing, or worsen existing, respiratory problems.
For centuries, Black women particularly in the U.S. have straightened their hair. They have been exposed to toxins in personal care products from childhood on, as they regularly apply hair relaxers on their hair, and that of their children, for easier maintenance. Black women and other women of color use more hair products than other ethnic groups, which results in elevated levels of phthalates in their urine.
A recent Environmental Science and Technology study found that levels of metabolites — substances formed from the breakdown of phthalates — were 10 times higher among Black and Latinx hairstylists than office workers of same heritage. This study adds to a growing body of evidence that women of color — particularly Black women — are disproportionately exposed to phthalates and other dangerous chemicals from hair care products. Many of these products contain fragrances without listed ingredients, which is "one place for phthalates to hide."
The researchers also found that hairdressers who performed certain salon services, like chemical straightening, bleaching, and Brazilian blowouts, had almost double the phthalate levels of those who did not. Experts and advocates agree that the findings highlight the need to better regulate what kinds of chemicals are in personal care products.
Phthalates were first developed in the 1920s to make plastics like PVC more malleable and durable. Today, it's impossible to avoid them as they're found in everything from flooring to toys to food packaging. The chemicals are commonly used by cosmetics and hair care product manufacturers to make fragrances and colors last longer, and to make hair more flexible after product is applied, among other uses.
Phthalates from plastics leach out into the environment. Their counterparts in beauty products can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Pregnant women are considered especially at-risk, with studies showing that prenatal phthalate exposure could affect everything from infants' mental and children's reproductive systems development.
Phthalates are not the only toxic chemical that hair stylists are exposed to. Formaldehyde, a known-carcinogen, from hair straighteners is not something anyone needs to be breathing in for multiple hours a day, multiple days a week, all throughout the year.
The major problem is that the manufacturers are required to label product ingredients, but they are not required to label ingredients for products designed specifically for salons. While the FDA technically regulates cosmetics, the agency does not approve personal care products — or their ingredients — at all before they are introduced to the market.