In Nigeria, activists and entrepreneurs are promoting natural ways for black women to care for their hair amid concerns that some commonly used products like dyes and relaxers may actually be dangerous and lead to health problems.
This may look like a typical hair salon in Abuja. But it’s not.
“We specialize in maintaining and taking care of the natural hair. What the everyday people call the virgin hair, the hair that hasn’t been relaxed, like the hair you were born with,” said Joye Ulekoikoni, manager of the Lumo Hair Salon.
At the Lumo Hair Salon, hairdressers use natural-based ingredients and avoid using heat on the hair of their clients. Heat can dry or damage hair.
“One of the reasons why this salon came up is because people had a lot of issues taking care of their natural hair,” said Ulekoikoni.
Hair is big business in Nigeria. Beauty stores display a wide range of hair products mainly imported from the United States. But some of the ingredients in these kinds of products are coming under scrutiny.
In a new report, Black Women for Wellness, an NGO based in Los Angeles, compiled five years of research and says that chemicals used in some hair products are linked to uterine fibroids in black women and girls. Products including relaxers, shampoos and hair dyes are mentioned in the study as containing toxic ingredients.
The World Health Organization has warned that hairdressers may be routinely exposed to cancer-causing chemicals. But the American Cancer Association says studies have not found a strong link between cancer and hair products and recommends more research.
In 2011, a health agency of the U.S. Department of Labor found that some “hair smoothing” products may release unsafe levels of formaldehyde, which is toxic.
Dr. Oluwakemi Osunderu, an ethnopharmacologist, has been doing her own research, conducting a poll asking Nigerian women about the experiences with synthetic hair products. She says common complaints are hair loss and burns on the scalp.
She says black women are more at risk because they tend to use hair products frequently over a longer period of time and therefore have higher exposure levels to the chemicals.
“You find some harmful products in them like the thalates and the parabens. These have been linked to cancer, especially breast cancer,” she said.
Enter the natural hair movement. Natural hair activists gathered together at the first African Hair Summit in Abuja.
“It’s health first, then beauty or fashion,” said Lotanna Egwuatu, a natural hair activist.
Locally manufactured products made with natural ingredients like pure shea butter and coconut oil were on display. And while interest may be growing, these products are still far from mainstream in Nigeria.