Heading Off Hair-Care Disasters: Use Caution With Relaxers and Dyes

By Michelle Meadows

It's never a good sign when the hairdresser panics. That's what happened to Barbara Cabrera-Avila, 38, when she returned to the salon about six weeks after having her hair straightened a couple of years ago. The cause for alarm: several bald spots in the back of her head.

The Adelphi, Md., resident began having her curls straightened at the age of six so her hair would be easier to comb and style. She says over-processed hair likely played a role in her hair loss, and stress could have been a factor. What's certain is that three dermatologists advised her to take a break from hair straighteners, also known as relaxers.

Barbara says giving up the straight hair she had grown comfortable with wasn't easy. After all, people's personal preferences about how they want to look tie into self-esteem--a fact that makes for good sales in the hair business. In addition to paying for trims and cuts to achieve a certain look, consumers spend millions of dollars each year to get hair that's different from what nature intended--whether it's to tame tight curls, give flat hair a boost, or get rid of the gray.

According to the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Cosmetics and Colors, hair straighteners and hair dyes are among its top consumer complaint areas. Complaints range from hair breakage to symptoms warranting an emergency room visit. Reporting such complaints is voluntary, and the reported problem is often due to incorrect use of a product rather than the product itself. FDA encourages consumers to understand the risks that come with using hair chemicals, and to take a proactive approach in ensuring their proper use. The agency doesn't have authority under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to require premarket approval for cosmetics, but it can take action when safety issues surface.

When the Product Is the Problem

When consumers notify FDA of problems with cosmetics, the agency evaluates evidence on a case-by-case basis and determines if follow-up is needed, says Allen Halper, an FDA consumer safety officer. FDA looks for patterns of complaints or unusual or severe reactions. The agency may conduct an investigation, and if the evidence supports regulatory action, FDA may request removal of a cosmetic from the market.

Take the example of two popular hair relaxer products by World Rio Corp.--the Rio Naturalizer System (Neutral Formula) and the Rio Naturalizer System with Color Enhancer (Black/Licorice). After receiving complaints about these products in November and December of 1994, FDA warned the public against using them. Consumers complained of hair loss, scalp irritation, and discolored hair.

In December 1994, the World Rio Corp., Inc. of Los Angeles, Calif., announced that it stopped sales and shipments of the product. But reports indicated that the company continued to take orders, and the California Department of Health also stepped in to stop sales. In January of 1995, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles filed a seizure action against these products on behalf of FDA. By then, the agency had received more than 3,000 complaints about the Rio products.

Although most relaxers are alkaline, this product was formulated to be acidic. In the resulting consent decree of condemnation and permanent injunction, FDA alleged that the products were potentially harmful or injurious when used as intended, that they were more acidic than declared in the labeling, and that the labeling described the products as "chemical free" when "allegedly they contained ingredients commonly understood to be 'chemicals.'"

Safer Straightening

FDA has received complaints about scalp irritation and hair breakage related to both lye and "no lye" relaxers. Some consumers falsely assume that compared to lye relaxers, "no lye" relaxers take all the worry out of straightening.

"People may think because it says 'no lye' that it's not caustic," says FDA biologist Lark Lambert. But both types of relaxers contain ingredients that work by breaking chemical bonds of the hair, and both can burn the scalp if used incorrectly. Lye relaxers contain sodium hydroxide as the active ingredient. With "no lye" relaxers, calcium hydroxide and guanidine carbonate are mixed to produce guanidine hydroxide.

Research has shown that this combination in "no lye" relaxers results in less scalp irritation than lye relaxers, but the same safety rules apply for both. They should be used properly, left on no longer than the prescribed time, carefully washed out with neutralizing shampoo, and followed up with regular conditioning. For those who opt to straighten their own hair, it's wise to enlist help simply because not being able to see and reach the top and back of the head makes proper application of the chemical and thorough rinsing more of a challenge.