Cancer-causing chemicals? Why some hair products may be dangerous

Some hair chemicals can be potentially dangerous, linked to problems like cancer, organ toxicity and more. (Stock Photo)

Elizabeth Straker, owner of the Boise Organic salon, says many customers notice something different the moment they walk in.

"That's what I hear the most from my clients, immediately they walk in and are like, 'it doesn't smell like a salon in here'," Straker said.

Straker credits that to all the natural products she uses.

Instead of harsh chemicals, she picks products that are Aloe Vera based, ammonia free, and formulated with plant enzymes. Straker says clients notice another difference too: It makes them feel better.

"When I apply the color people tell me, 'oh gosh, I'm not getting a headache. I'm not getting dizzy. My scalp isn't itchy. It doesn't burn'," said Straker.

Straker says the reactions of chemicals like ammonia, parabens and phthalates inside other hair products caused her to rethink what she was using.

"It can make your hair brittle if you're constantly over applying products," she said. "Especially higher levels of peroxide and ammonia."

But there could be a lot more at stake than just brittle hair. It may seem something like hairspray is used to make sure your hair style stays, but what stays in your system hours later, can be concerning.

According to organizations such as Safer Chemicals, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and the Environmental Working Group, various substances used in hair products could be considered unsafe.

Phthalates for example, can be found in products like hair mouse, hair spray and hair gel, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. The chemical is linked to liver, kidney and lung problems, in addition to problems with the reproductive system.

Parabens, found in some shampoos and conditioners, have been linked to breast cancer, while ethanolamine compounds (DEA, TEA, MEA), found in hair dyes, shampoos and conditioners, are linked to organ system toxicity.

Researchers have also found problems with chemicals like ammonia, oxionate and benzophenone as well.

Nneka Leiba from the Environmental Working Group says there's a huge discrepancy between Europe and the U.S. when it comes to chemicals allowed in products. She points to the fact that the US FDA only banned or restricted 11 chemicals from personal care products, while the EU has banned over one-thousand.

"In the U.S. we are talking about a dozen, in Europe, we are talking about a thousand. That distinction or discrepancy is mind-boggling," she said.

Leiba says these products can easily soak into your blood stream too.

""They can have long term health impacts, and not just on our children, but potentially on our children's children, because they can potentially have cross-generational effects," said Leiba.

How products are labeled could be another problem according to Leiba. Terms like "fragrance" for example, could be masking dangerous chemicals like parabens.

"That term can encompass thousands of ingredients---up to 3 thousand ingredients, could be used in the product, hidden on that term," said Leiba.

It's why Leiba recommends reading every label before you buy something.

"We use about a dozen personal care products every single day, and sometimes multiple times a day," she said. "These products can have up to 1,000 chemicals in them. so we are being exposed to small doses yes, but small doses many times a day,"

And Straker says choosing better products, doesn't have to be hard either.

"You have alternatives, you have options. It takes just some rethinking a little bit," said Straker. "It's kind of an easy fix replace the bottle with shampoo with a different bottle of shampoo that's better."

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