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Bleaching, sunbeds, relaxers: Why we continue with our toxic beauty habits

Despite the science and negative reports, lots of us are addicted to harmful beauty routines. It might be more than skin deep...

Mira Kopolovic, senior social scientist at Canvas8, explains how we have “confirmation bias”, meaning our brain unconsciously cherry-picks the information that we have a stake in believing. We’re predisposed to remember it more if it’s in line with our beliefs. 

Take parabens. Parabens are preservatives that ensure we’re protected from contamination by microbes such as bacteria, moulds and yeast. In a 2004 study, it was reported that parabens are linked to breast cancer. These findings were widely discredited by experts in 2005 and again in 2011, the industry adopted the messaging that parabens are bad, demonising them to the public and there was a boom in products claiming to be paraben-free. 

“Beyond that, we rationalise things we feel stuck with,” Kopolovic continues, “If we can’t be ourselves without some vital, bleach-laden treatment, we’re essentially stuck with it, so we’re more likely to interpret it positively. It’s a psychological defence mechanism – one that makes us feel okay so we can stop fretting and get on with existence.” 

The popularity of Goop demonstrates the problem with this, as in the pursuit and practice of wellness, an anti-science approach is spearheaded by public figures like Gwyneth Paltrow. While initially ridiculed for recommending inserting jade eggs into your vagina to tune into your feminine energy (sold by Goop – experts have strongly advised against this), there’s been an acceptance of exploring ‘alternative’ treatments that aren‘t backed by evidence into the mainstream. Most recently, Paltrow’s six-part series, The Goop Lab being made by Netflix.

Race also plays a role. An article in The Guardian revealed that hair care and cosmetic products marketed towards black women are more damaging due to endocrine or hormone-disrupting chemicals in them compared to products aimed towards white women. Chemical hair straightening is a treatment that’s particularly common among black women, but due to the high heat and strong chemicals used, risks making hair dry, brittle and prone to breakage. 

A study from the International Journal of Cancer revealed that using chemical hair straighteners at least every five to eight weeks increased the risk of breast cancer by 31 per cent, regardless of race or hair type, however, 74 per cent of black women reported using chemical straighteners in contrast to 3 per cent of white women. Additionally, in 2017 The Cut reported that research published by the American Journal of Obstetrics found that black, Asian-American and Latina women in the US spent the most on beauty products yet are more exposed to higher levels of chemicals that can be harmful in products such hair relaxers and skin-lightening creams.

TV Producer Zina Alfa, who set up a petition to ban hair discrimination in the UK, believes that the historical use of chemical straightening stems partly from hair discrimination. “When slavery first was brought to the West, most people‘s hair was shaved off as a way to eradicate the slaves‘ cultural identity as a form of assimilation. This has transcended into everyday culture.” She goes onto say that as a community, we have normalised chemically straightening hair to the point that we see having straight hair as it is a symbol of upper class, beauty and success.”

“We rationalise things we feel stuck with. If we can’t be ourselves without some vital, bleach-laden treatment, we’re essentially stuck with it, so we’re more likely to interpret it positively. It’s a psychological defence mechanism – one that makes us feel okay so we can stop fretting and get on with existence” – Mira Kopolovic, senior social scientist, Canvas8

Her experience with the treatment started from as young as five. “I was in America and my uncle's wife decided that she was going to relax my hair because my hair “wasn't good” like hers (she was mixed race). Putting chemicals in a five-year-old child’s hair is absolutely ludicrous and the message that sends out to children is terrible. It completely destroyed my self-esteem.” Years later whilst at school, a maths teacher told her that her braids were ‘disgusting’ and ‘not school policy’ which deterred her from getting braids for another 12 years. The experience left Alfa feeling ashamed of wearing her hair in a style that protected her natural Afro. “As a result, I continued to chemically straighten my hair - which damaged it to the point where I had to cut off all my hair in 2016. I’ve been natural ever since.” 

Make-up artist Joyce Connor shared that she also spent many years using a chemical relaxer to straighten her thick Afro hair, but it was when she began to experience severe breakage that motivated her decision to stop, further spurred on after reading an article that said hair relaxers contain carcinogens.“I started noticing the damage about three years before I finally stopped using it. My hair was breaking off and I had some small alopecia patches on my scalp. It was so badly damaged that I was waking up with hair on the pillow and some small alopecia patches on my scalp,” she says.

For Natalie Collins, who bleached her hair in pursuit of having cool icy grey tresses, first professionally and then at home, it was solely her own experience of hair snapping off that influenced her decision to stop using the stripping treatment. “It was all dandy for a year and then I bleached over-bleached hair and the top layer snapped off. I essentially lost a layer and it looked like a mullet. It’s been a year and a half and after several haircuts to keep my hair shorter, the top layer has nearly caught up with the rest of my hair.” 

Despite being aware that this was damaging, Collins says she thought she would be the exception to the rule. “I always had such healthy hair which was thick so didn’t think I’d suffer from it.” It has made Collins much more careful as a result but admits she would be put off using other treatments or products if a report came out revealing it may have damaging effects, citing talcum powder as one example due to reports linking it to ovarian cancer.

Toxic Beauty, a 2019 documentary explores issues around that particular product and more. It’s a deep dive into the lack of regulations around the chemicals in beauty products. As it unearths the varying medical issues such as mercury poisoning and breast cancer linked to ingredients like phthalates, the documentary also reveals the gimmicky-nature of it all. Profit is prioritised over transparency, it’s telling how little we know about what’s in our products and the long term effects. One finding from the documentary was that lavender oil can cause hormone disruption in young boys, increasing breast growth, despite it being marketed to the masses as beneficial. Sustainability consultant Sarah Jay shares that the combination of using topical products to treat her acne, continuous hair dye and exposure to chlorine as a competitive swimmer as a child is responsible for the chronic illness she has – Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, causing increased sensitivity to fragrance. 

Akvilė Les, a 30-year-old fashion artist, shared the impact watching the documentary had on her own routine. “What stood out to me the most was the fact that cosmetic legislation in the US hasn’t been updated for decades. This consumerism is a toxic game; society is so focused on blindly buying and using products that are marketed towards them, meanwhile most people don’t think to educate themselves and read the labels. People should read what they’re buying, just like they read the labels of food products in the supermarket.” She says that she got rid of all her mascaras that had plastic in them, lip products that contained petroleum and hair products with phthalates.

Additionally, public awareness of products is slow to change. This stems from the media narrative, which prioritises the reporting of sensationalist studies for shock value. It is then less interesting to the general public, in the case of parabens and their link to breast cancer, to then learn a year later that actually they are safe. Conflicting reports on parabens, no matter how outdated some are, isn’t information consumers are willing to read, not least because medical journals are not digestible to the public.

Moreover, a study conducted by Elsevier in collaboration with UK group, Sense About Science, of the 3,133 scientists surveyed, 25 per cent said exaggerated findings, a lack of detail, and poor conclusions make research outputs untrustworthy. Researchers recognised that their own lack of trust in science, has a knock-on effect to public confidence in science, 28 per cent cited the volume of information from studies available to the public as a big issue. As we become less trusting of the efficacy of health studies and reports, their impact on our routines also decreases. 

The existence of regulators – the FDA in America and the EU in Europe for example – is also to blame as we believe that these governing bodies wouldn’t allow anything unsafe to be sold to us. This is due to a lack of education of their influence on cosmetic products and their accompanying claims. Toxic Beauty reveals that the EU has banned 1328 chemicals, while the US has banned just 11. Formaldehyde, for example, a colourless gas found in hair straightening treatments and nail polish is banned in cosmetics sold in the EU but commonly found in the US. 

“This ‘biohacking’ mentality seeps into beauty culture, some are actually turning to beauty technology to undo damage that was formerly ‘irreversible’ – whether it’s treatments like Olaplex that rebraid the broken bonds in a strand of bleach-fried hair, or LED light masks that claim to fight the effects of ageing”– Mira Kopolovic, senior social scientist, Canvas8

Nick Gadsby, Commercial Semiotician and Anthropologist believes that most people don’t consider the health implications of cosmetic products, and instead look to reviews, friends, colleagues and peers for opinions instead. “Cosmetics are not a digestible category like food and drink because it’s not always seen as essential as food is. They’re not granted the same level of significance as things that are seen as everyday and essential, and there’s a snobbery around cosmetics that plays into that as well,” he explains. 

The use of damaging products is also a result of people being savvier about the ingredients in them and an attitude that any damage can be fixed, as Kopolovic explains. “This ‘biohacking’ mentality seeps into beauty culture, some are actually turning to beauty technology to undo damage that was formerly ‘irreversible’ – whether it’s treatments like Olaplex that rebraid the broken bonds in a strand of bleach-fried hair, or LED light masks that claim to fight the effects of ageing.”

For me and my acrylic gel nail habit, the short term satisfaction of having aesthetically pleasing nails matters more to me than the long term damage it’s doing. While I know I’ll probably regret it further down the line, I can ignore any qualms. Especially as I get them done with different colours, it covers up the damage the treatment itself is doing and the cycle continues. People indulge in damaging beauty endeavours despite negative reports and studies, knowing there’s a beauty fix acts as a moral permission slip according to Kopolovic, justifying what we were probably going to do anyway.