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