Could using daily hair care products be harmful for your health?

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   Recent studies are raising concerns about the safety of certain hair care products and treatments, suggesting potential health risks. In a study published in Environmental Science & Technology, Purdue University researchers have identified chemicals, particularly cyclic volatile methyl siloxanes (cVMS), commonly present in everyday hair care products. These chemicals were found to evaporate and linger in the air post-application easily.

The research indicates that during a typical home hairstyling session, individuals may inhale between 1 and 17 milligrams of these chemicals, posing potential health hazards. Moreover, using hot styling tools like curling or flat irons on hair treated with these products can intensify the release of these chemicals.

These findings raise important questions about potential health implications for the millions who regularly use hair care products and styling tools. We must stay informed about our products and consider alternatives that prioritize safety.

What's Happening?

In contrast to prior environmental studies focusing on siloxanes in rinse-off personal care items like shampoo, recent research looks at these chemicals in leave-in hair products such as gels, oils, creams, waxes, and sprays.

To delve into the impact of these substances, researchers enlisted volunteers aged 18 to 65 who regularly use leave-in hair care products. Participants were asked to follow their usual styling routine in the controlled atmosphere of the university's lab. Nusrat Jung, lead author of the study and assistant professor at Purdue University's Lyles School of Civil Engineering, explained that the lab provided a protected environment where air composition could be precisely monitored.

The researchers measured real-time emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including siloxanes, throughout the hairstyling process. Their findings highlighted decamethylcyclopentasiloxane, also known as D5 siloxane or cyclopentasiloxane, as the most prevalent chemical lingering in the air. This ingredient is commonly used in hair care products to enhance hair smoothness and shine.

According to Jung, mixing these chemicals with heated styling tools intensifies the release of these substances into the air. The study participants using a hot styling tool at 210 degrees Celsius/410 degrees Fahrenheit witnessed a notable increase in chemical emissions from the hair care products, ranging from 50% to a substantial 310%.

Jung expressed surprise at the significant emissions of volatile chemical mixtures from commonly used hair care products. Even as someone who styles her own curly hair with these products, she didn't anticipate such outcomes. Jung emphasized that while exposure to chemicals might be expected in a salon setting, the study revealed that replicating everyday hair care routines at home could also result in considerable chemical exposure. This finding challenges previous assumptions about the safety of routine hair care practices.

Do I need to worry?

It's crucial to note that there is limited scientific evidence regarding whether D5 siloxane poses health risks to humans, as most research on its potential effects has been conducted on animals. The Environmental Working Group rates Cyclopentasiloxane as a 3 out of 10 on its toxicity scale, with ten being the most severe.

Nevertheless, Jung highlights that the European Chemicals Agency has already classified D5 as "very persistent and very bioaccumulative." This classification indicates that the substance does not easily break down in the environment and can accumulate gradually in humans and animals. The potential harm of frequent use over time remains unclear. As such, it underscores the importance of further research to understand better the long-term effects and potential risks associated with these chemicals in everyday hair care products.

Jung emphasizes that when using wash-off products in the shower, the water treatment process is crucial because these chemicals can end up in various environments, affecting small and marine animals. Citing a 2015 study in the Netherlands, she mentions that inhaling D5 siloxane from personal care products was linked to adverse effects on laboratory animals' respiratory tract, liver, and nervous system. Notably, the entire continent of Europe has imposed restrictions on this chemical formulation.

This scrutiny of hair products isn't new. In October, a Boston University study found a connection between chemical hair relaxers and an elevated risk of uterine cancer. Consequently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is gearing up to propose a ban on formaldehyde (FA) and other FA-releasing chemicals in hair smoothing and straightening products marketed in the U.S. This underscores the growing attention to potential health risks associated with various elements found in common hair care and styling products.

The Black Women's Health Study revealed compelling results, indicating that postmenopausal women using hair relaxers more than twice a year or for over five years faced a greater than 50% increased risk of uterine cancer compared to those who seldom or never used such products. Kimberly Bertrand, co-author of the study and associate professor of medicine at Boston University's Slone Epidemiology Center, emphasized these findings. Additionally, postmenopausal Black women using hair relaxers for 20 years or more exhibited a staggering 70% increased risk of uterine cancer compared to those who were infrequent or non-users. This sheds light on potential health concerns associated with prolonged and frequent use of hair relaxers among this demographic.

What can I do about it?

While D5 is generally considered safe, Jung emphasizes the importance of proper ventilation when using everyday hair products that may contain this compound. She recommends using an exhaust fan during your hair care routine, as it can remove at least 90% of volatile chemicals from your indoor space.

However, Jung highlights that using an exhaust fan transfers emissions from one space to another, and they don't vanish. Siloxanes like D5 have already become part of the atmosphere, contributing to pollution.

To reduce potential risks, consider using hair care products and undergoing chemical relaxing treatments less frequently, as research suggests a higher risk of gynecological cancers with moderate to heavy use of chemical relaxers. Checking the ingredients on your hair care products is another option, although it can be challenging. Jung explains that compounds like D4 and D3, falling into the cVMS category, may also be present, and they all end with the term siloxanes.

However, Jung notes that manufacturers might not disclose every ingredient in a product, as they have the right to keep some information confidential.

Although challenging, avoiding leave-in creams, sprays, and gels may be the most effective way to protect yourself and the environment. Making informed choices about your hair care routine can contribute to personal well-being and environmental sustainability.

The main takeaway

Several variables come into play in the realm of this research. Factors such as the frequency of product use, the duration of a person's hair care routine, the temperature of styling tools, hair length, bathroom size, and the type of ventilation system all influence the amount of chemicals that may be inhaled.

Jung remains optimistic that these recent findings will spur further research and generate awareness among consumers, the hair care industry, and the scientific community. She stresses the need for a better understanding of these chemicals' impact on human health. Jung sees this as an opportunity to encourage more research into the matter.

Her goal in sharing this information with the public is not to induce fear but to promote awareness. Jung wants people to be informed and mindful and to take measures to protect themselves. By being aware of these potential risks, individuals can make informed choices about their hair care practices and contribute to their own well-being.