From the time she was a small child until she was a teenager, Annmarie Spellen chemically straightened her hair -- a process that left her nursing burns and scabs on her scalp afterwords.
The hospital worker, 37 and mother of two from Hackensack, NJ said she got burned "all the time" despite using no lye relaxers and having the stylist wash the relaxer out immediately after putting it in.
"I did it for as long as I could," said Spellen, who has worn her hair in dreadlocks for the past ten years. "I tried, and I just couldn't do it. It was just too devastating. It was like going through a trauma."
But the scalp burns weren't the only health problem she experienced following a chemical relaxer.
"I would go home with these massive headaches," Spellen said. "And I couldn't understand why."
Black women spend billions annually on beauty products, and many place special emphasis on keeping their hair styled. They buy a third of all U.S. hair care merchandise, according to industry statistics. The black hair care business has ballooned into a $9 billion a year industry.
But scientists and environmental justice advocates said the number of potentially dangerous chemicals used as ingredients in some hair care products can jeopardize women's health -- that the chemical relaxers, oil sheen, hair grease, and spray women apply to her hair and scalp could be laced with harmful chemicals.
Lye, phthalates, placenta and parabens are among the hazardous chemicals found in a multitude of hair care products marketed toward African-American women. Lye, or sodium hydroxide, can cause chemical burns, scars and blindness. Phthalates, sometimes listed simply as "fragrance" on product ingredient lists, is also linked to endometriosis, or when uterine lining grows outside the uterus. Phthalates, parabens and animal placenta can mimic hormones and disrupt critical processes in the body, scientists have said.
"African-American women, compared to their white counterparts, have higher levels of phthalates and they have higher levels of BPA," said Dr. Ami Zota, an environmental health researcher at the University of California San Francisco. BPA is used in plastic manufacturing and has been linked to cancer and reproductive abnormalities. "Nobody has really figured out why," Dr. Zota said. "But I think the hair care products are part of that story."
The hormone disruptors in beauty products may have already had an effect on a generation of young girls. The onset of puberty for all girls in the U.S. has gradually increased by a few months since the 1950s, while breast development has accelerated by up to two years, according to a 2009 report from the Collaborative on Health and the Environment.