No pain, no gain? In 2017, that statement feels pretty outdated, especially when it comes to beauty treatments. Listen, we think that looking (and feeling) good are parts of much needed self-care, but are you willing to risk your health in the process? For many women throughout history, that answer has been yes but for Black women in particular, the side effects from the pursuit of beauty have some serious risks.
Surprisingly, some of the most common practices are often the unhealthiest — and we wanted to get to the bottom of them. Ever wonder what really happens during the skin bleaching process? Or if those box braids are helping more than hurting?
We spoke to a handful of experts from a dermatologist to a trichologist to discuss the dangers of looking good. Our advice: User beware!
“Although there is no bleach that is actually used, the goal [of bleaching creams] is to lighten the skin,” shares Dr. Fran E. Cook-Bolden of Skin Specialty Dermatology in NYC. “Hydroquinone (HQ) is the standard medication used for skin bleaching and is generally safe when used according to specification and in [very small] percentages.”
“However, the FDA has had serious questions about the use of skin bleachers, including whether they are carcinogenic. There has been no proof that this is the case or that approved hydroquinones are unsafe, so there has been no ban. Like many other topical products applied to the face, HQ can cause irritation — and some are actually allergic to HQ, although true allergies are very uncommon,” says Cook-Bolden.
“Overuse can obviously cause undesirable, uneven pigmentation and even a condition called ochronosis, which results in deep darkening on the skin that is very difficult to treat and sometimes cannot be totally resolved,” says Cook-Bolden.
Urban myths for reasons to try the outdated method range from banishing unpleasant odors to washing away menstrual blood post-period to avoiding getting sexually transmitted diseases and even avoiding unwanted pregnancies. Unfortunately, all of these claims are #false.
“The first question is, Why are you douching? There isn’t any real reason to douche unless it’s recommended by your physician, and that would be really under unusual circumstances,” explains Atlanta-based board certified internist Dr. Sylvia Morris. “In essence you’re inserting fluid, sometimes tap water, sometimes vinegar-based solution into the vagina and kind of flushing it out,” she explains.
Morris also tells us that changes with your *ahem* lady parts might be due to a switch in sexual partners, new tampon brand, forgotten tampon inside (yikes!), etc. These can all result in irritation or infection or signal a large health issue, so be prepared to fess up to your doctor if that’s the case.
“If you have an odor, an itch or pain or there’s been a change in your discharge, that’s really sort of your body’s way of telling you, ‘Hey, maybe I need to seek medical attention,’ ” says Morris.
SYNTHETIC HAIR EXTENSIONS
Braids, wigs and weaves can be protective style saviors, but they can also result in hair and/or scalp debacles. It’s no surprise that certain types of synthetic hair (for example, Kanekalon or Marley) can cause your hair to feel excessively dry upon removal.
“Try to keep synthetic hair extensions or braids in for no longer than four weeks. Keeping the synthetic braids in your hair longer will make your hair feel even dryer,” explains licensed cosmetologist and IAT-certified trichologist Sophia Emmanuel of Crown Worthy. “Dryness often takes place because synthetic hair is made up of coarse fibers that strip moisture from the hair. Synthetic hair can irritate the scalp for some people and may result in excessive itching, followed by bumps on the scalp,” she adds.
According to Emmanuel, this irritation is caused by the alkaline dye coating on synthetic hair. Try using human hair as an alternative; however, a pre-wash before installation is also recommended.
“Make sure to use a sulphate-free shampoo to cleanse the human hair extensions before you put them in your hair. When you take down your extensions or braids after using synthetic hair, you have to use a heavy moisturizing conditioner to help build moisture back into the hair. I recommend Joico Moisture Recovery Treatment Balm, Mizani Moisturefusion and Jane Carter Nutrient Replenishing Conditioner,” says Emmanuel.
In her new book, Gabrielle Union shared her prior “addiction” to relaxers, admitting she’d leave them on for so long that she’d have multiple lesions on her scalp. She’s since gone natural and opted for more protective styles.
“Chemical relaxers containing lye, which are mostly made up of a substance known as sodium hydroxide, can have several adverse effects on the scalp and hair,” explains Dr. Carlos A. Charles of Derma di Colore in NYC. “They function by disrupting the sulfide bonds that maintain the integrity of the hair structure, and therefore ‘relax’ the hair.”
“In the short term, using these agents can cause a severe irritant contact skin reactions on the scalp. Repeated exposure can lead to hair breakage and, worse, scarring hair loss also known as scarring alopecia can occur. These relaxers should be avoided if possible,” says Charles.
For those seeking alternative treatments, unfortunately even non-lye containing relaxers can also lead to similar issues. “The reason that traditional relaxers are still around is because there’s no great replacement for those who want to have very straight hair without reversion from moisture—even as simple as sweating,” explains Cook-Bolden. She recommends alternatives like OTC straightening creams and gels, Curlaway, Diva Smooth and Brazilian Keratin Treatments.”
“The biggest potential problem with using hair glue is that many of the ingredients in these substances are major causes of irritant and allergic reactions on the scalp,” explains Charles. “The use of hair glue should also be minimized and avoided when possible.”
Those seeking alternative methods should lean in on sew-ins, anchors, hair clips, wigs, tape, and hair blending — courtesy of a certified professional. Of course, even with a protective style taking care of your hair (and scalp) should remain your top priority.
Remember, even if it still looks good, leaving in extensions for too long can also result in permanent hair damage. Word to the wise, don’t risk it!
PRESSING + FLAT IRONING HAIR
“When hot tools are used too often on the hair, it will result in hair breakage, split ends, and limp hair that has no body or shine,” explains Emmanuel. “If you have natural hair, use of hot tools in excess will cause heat damage and make your curls, coils, or waves permanently straight.”
“When this happens you will have a hard time styling wash-and-go hairstyles or other wet sets. The damage to the hair takes place because heat breaks down the disulphide bonds of the hair. Disulphide bonds are the bonds that give our hair its strength and elasticity. When too many disulphide bonds break, and do not link back together, your hair breaks off. To avoid damage to your hair when using a flat iron, always use a heat protectant.”
Everybody wants a big booty and a tiny waist, right? You might want to think twice on this one. Waist training actually comes with the most dangerous drawbacks, yet dates back to the Victorian era when corsets and girdles were all the rage.
“Certainly we’ve all worn Spanx before and felt completely constricted — think of a waist-trainer as the same thing,” explains Morris. “[In this case] it can displace some of our vital organs in extreme cases.”
“If you’re wearing a waist trainer and it’s too tight or you’re wearing it for too long, then it can affect your ability to take a deep breath, which is life-threating. I definitely don’t recommend that people sleep in them,” she says.
Morris also reminds us that there are no shortcuts to looking good — despite what you see on Instagram. “Exercise is critical, so a half hour a day is a recommendation. If you’re merely trying to have the aesthetic of I have a tiny waist, but your body is not healthy, then long-term that’s not good.”