Western lawmakers lead a movement to protect natural hair

A recent wave of legislation fights for Black women’s right to wear natural styles and have safe hair products.

 

In 2019, when Tekulve Jackson-Vann told his supervisor at the Payson Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about his decision to wear his hair in locs, he was fired. “We’re asked to have our hair in a conservative style so it’s not a distraction to the patrons,” Jackson-Vann told a local network news reporter. “My first thought immediately was, ‘This is a moment — this is a moment where I can help educate my brethren in the Gospel that there are standards which are not rooted in doctrine and that can be challenged.’”

Jackson-Vann was reinstated within 24 hours, but the incident prompted Utah state Sen. Derek Kitchen, D, to draft new legislation known as the CROWN Act, for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, which prohibits state employers and public schools from discriminating against Black residents for wearing natural hairstyles.

On July 03, 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom Signs SB188, the CROWN Act, into law, making California the first state to ban hair discrimination in work and school. Senator Holly Mitchell, seen here with Gov. Newsom, was the bill’s sponsor.
Courtesy of JOY Collective

If it’s passed and signed into law, the law will make Utah the fourth Western state to pass such legislation, joining California, Colorado and Washington. New Mexico and Oregon are not far behind. The city of Albuquerque passed the CROWN Act last month, right before New Mexico introduced a statewide version earlier this month. New Mexico’s bill could beat the Utah bill to the finish line, while lawmakers in Oregon plan to reintroduce their own version of the CROWN Act this year. 

Passage elsewhere in the West remains uncertain: The CROWN Act was filed in Arizona but didn’t pass, and so far, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming have yet to propose similar legislation. In September, however, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a federal version of the law, which currently awaits a vote in the Senate.

Washington state Democratic Rep. Melanie Morgan, who sponsored Washington’s CROWN Act, praised the law’s insistence that her constituents’ natural hair be accepted, “whether that’s in braids or twists or locs.” Rep. Morgan argues that the use of straightening chemicals should be a choice, particularly for Black women and girls who have had to straighten their hair rather than wear natural hairstyles in order to advance at work or school.

Black Westerners have long experienced discrimination for wearing natural hairstyles. At the same time, the hair-care products they use have been neither guaranteed to be safe nor clearly labeled. Lawmakers like Rep. Morgan believe that improved regulation of these products is a critical next step. Now, a few bills have been proposed that would offer all consumers — particularly Black women — increased product safety regulation. 

The Natural Cosmetics Act (HR 5017) is one of two federal bills that would update the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 to provide more transparency and regulation over personal care products labeled “natural.” Consumer safety advocates say that while its passage would be a win for all consumers who prefer safer, more natural hair and cosmetics products, it’s particularly important for Black women, who have experienced the double whammy of discrimination due to their natural hairstyles and exposure to the toxic ingredients in hair products. Advocates maintain that this is an issue that concerns both consumer safety and environmental justice. 

Rep. Melanie Morgan, seen here in a meeting during her first year in office, sponsored the Washington CROWN Act.
Courtesy of Washington State LSS

RESEARCH SUGGESTS that the personal care products Black women use are more toxic than those used by other groups. And given that Black women spend twice as much as any other ethnic group on beauty products each year — approximately $9 billion, according to Black Women for Wellness — there’s good reason for alarm.

In its 2016 report, the California-based nonprofit cited a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology that found a link between uterine fibroids and the use of hair relaxers by Black girls and women, noting that the condition is estimated to affect 80% of Black women over the course of a lifetime.

But the recent rise of social media platforms that showcase the beauty of natural hair has prompted more Black women to seek out natural hairstyles and natural hair-care products. In 2016, the global research firm Mintel reported that spending on perm relaxers fell by 30.8% between 2011 and 2016.

California Sen. Holly Mitchell, who started sporting locs around 2004, has noticed this shift both as a consumer and a lawmaker. Mitchell, who was elected to the California State Legislature in 2010, said that cosmetics companies in the Golden State initially resisted additional regulation. Then the growing consumer demand caused the big brands to pivot and start creating their own natural hair product lines: “There was a point you’d go into Target or Sally’s, and there’d be one little shelf (of natural hair products), and now you go in and there are rows, because companies understand that this is a market that they didn’t want to be left behind on.”

The CROWN Act has become law in seven states thus far, and supporters continue to build a movement via social media and other platforms.

But the surge in natural hair products doesn’t necessarily correlate with an increase in their safety. The Natural Cosmetics Act addresses product safety and accurate labeling, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t currently require cosmetics companies to register with it or to detail their products’ formulas. Any reports of adverse health effects caused by a product’s use are entirely voluntary. Additionally, regulations regarding which products can be labeled “natural” are lacking.

“There are laws in place for food, but we haven’t seen it for cosmetics,” said Bonnie Patten, executive director of Truth in Advertising, an independent nonprofit that acts as a watchdog on behalf of consumers. As a result, companies have free rein to label products with potentially harmful ingredients as “natural,” unbeknownst to consumers. U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D, who sponsored the Natural Cosmetics Act, wrote in a statement to High Country News, Millions of Americans use products every day that are labeled as natural’ yet contain toxins like tar and asbestos — and thats just not right.”

Under the Natural Cosmetics Act, a hair product or other personal care product can be labeled “natural” if at least 70% of its ingredients, excluding water, are made from ingredients that are either natural or naturally derived. According to Rep. Maloney’s press release, the bill would “give the FDA authority to issue a cease distribution order, public notice on the FDA website, and voluntary recall authority of any product deemed misbranded.”

“They don’t care about the chemicals Black people are using in our hair. Let’s be real. These chemicals are in our salons in our community. It’s washed down our sinks. It’s going down our pipes, into our water.” 

Still, some say the bill doesn’t go far enough. “People assume that products that are natural or naturally derived are safer for them, but poison oak is natural, and even formaldehyde is natural,” said Sonya Lunder, senior toxics policy advisor for the Sierra Club. Lunder maintains that more accurate labeling is just one step towards improved consumer protection: “(We have) a mandate to better study health disparities to people of color resulting from cosmetics uses.”

Rep. Morgan blames racism for the disparity in research, calling out business leaders and apathetic lawmakers. “They don’t care about the chemicals Black people are using in our hair,” she said. “Let’s be real. These chemicals are in our salons in our community. It’s washed down our sinks. It’s going down our pipes, into our water.” 

TOGO NATIVE Olowo-ndjo Tchala’s desire to protect and empower his community prompted him and his wife to establish Alaffia in 2003. Their company, which is located in Olympia, Washington, has a mission to empower West African women by producing safe natural personal care products.

Alaffia works with a cooperative of female workers in Togo who use local ingredients, employ traditional extraction methods, and then ship the ingredients to the U.S., where they are made into finished products. Part of the profits are reinvested in empowerment projects in West Africa, including a maternal care project. The women receive fair wages, Tchala said: “You can make money and treat your community well.”

Alaffia sources the safest ingredients possible, Tchala said. “We have always followed the California Cosmetics Act,” referring to AB 2762, the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act, which bans 12 toxic ingredients already banned in the European Union, including mercury, formaldehyde, isobutyl and isopropyl parabens, along with PFAS, a group of synthetic chemicals that can cause adverse health and environmental effects. The California Legislature passed the bill in August. If signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, it would offer the most exacting cosmetics safety regulations in the country, a move that’s lauded by environmental and consumer safety groups.

Alaffia products that include water have to contain some preservatives to extend their shelf life, Tchala said. But he pointed out that they still have only a two-year shelf life compared to the five- or six-year lifespan of many personal care products. He stressed the need for companies to either find preservatives “that dont mess with peoples hormones” or else ensure that concentrations are so low as to not cause any harm.

Meanwhile, in California, Sen. Mitchell noted that the demand for laws that protect natural hairstyles and the safety of hair products is continuing to grow. “This is not a moment,” she said. “This is a movement.”

Chanté Griffin is a journalist based in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in in Ebony, The Huffington Post and the Los Angeles Times, among others. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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