By Kiara Rudder
My hairdresser tells me to take a seat, as I walk to the chair that I’ll be stuck in for what will feel like an eternity. She opens the packs of synthetic hair and begins separating them into pieces. She runs a comb through my natural hair several times and sections it out with precision.
We engage in small talk and I look at the time often, wondering when she will be finished. The growling sounds of our stomachs erupt through the room because we both haven’t eaten for hours. My bum starts to throb after sitting for so long, and my neck aches from being shifted and placed in so many different positions.
As the process comes to an end, she adds the finishing touches by swooping my baby hairs into place to shape my face and dipping the ends of my hair into steaming hot water. I feel the sensation of heat rising on my neck and then a cooling sensation as she adds mousse and oils to help keep the hairstyle intact.
The history of my hairstyle and Black braids can be traced back across 5,000 years of African culture; Namibian women wore Eembuvi braids, while those near the Nile River wore chin-length bob braids, according to Ebony.com. It’s a way for Black women and men to protect their kinky, coily and curly textured hair from over-manipulation, heat damage, knotting or being snagged on clothing and accessories. It also symbolizes many historical and cultural aspects of the Black experience.
Ciara Imani May is a 26-year-old Black woman from Kansas City, Missouri. While growing out her hair last summer, May didn’t want to worry about doing her natural hair all the time. She thought the best and easiest way to grow her hair would be to keep it in protective styles, like box braids.
It also symbolizes many historical and cultural aspects of the Black experience
For about six months, May would frequently go to hair salons to get her hair braided. The constant braiding with synthetic hair, however, left May with horrendous discomfort and inflammation in her scalp. She suffered so much irritation that she would find herself scratching her head for hours. She even developed puss bumps on her hairline.
“Protective styles were really my only choice, but my scalp became so inflamed from the hair that I had to choose between having all the discomfort—the burning and itching sensation—or taking the hair out and throwing my money and time away,” said May.
May said she found in her research that many other women experience the same discomfort. “It’s a major oversight by the industry. I don’t know how it’s gone this far with all the experiences that we’ve known to have over the years, and it’s not being addressed at the [appropriate] scale,” said May.
Instead, she resolved to find the root of her discomfort. Coincidentally, she was also interested in sustainability and exploring creative ways of reducing her carbon footprint. While researching the troubles with her scalp, May discovered that the synthetic hair that she and many others use is made from harmful plastic materials which also have a lasting impact on the environment.
“That correlation really stuck out to me. I was curious on how to solve the sustainability issue, then throughout the research, it occurred to me that the materials [synthetic hair] use are directly linked to my irritation,” she said.
Synthetic hair is made from a combination of plastic fibers that mimic human hair by being heated and formed into strands. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), an ingredient in synthetic hair, are gases that are emitted into the air from products or processes that are potentially toxic and carcinogenic. Kanekalon fibres are a common synthetic fiber that are widely used for braiding styles and are very popular amongst hairdressers.
“[Kanekalon hair] texture is perfect for blending with natural hair, providing beautiful styling results,” said Asia Monae Carlton, a hairdresser and braider based in Los Angeles.
“We shouldn’t let companies take the cheap way out to make a profit off of us”
However, it and other products aimed primarily at Black women were found to contain chemicals that were especially harmful to the hormones of Black women, according to a study from Silent Spring Institute. The consequences range from potentially greater risk of hair loss to infertility.
Akilah Spence, a second-year business management student, said she wears braids to boost her confidence and create “a different style than my everyday look.” However, she never looked into what materials were used in synthetic hair.
“I had no idea that synthetic hair was made out of harmful chemicals,” she said. “It’s definitely something that will make me look into the synthetic hair brands that I purchase before deciding to wear braids again.”
“We shouldn’t let companies take the cheap way out to make a profit off of us,” she said.
May’s concern for the well-being of the environment and others who fell victim to synthetic hair toxicity inspired her latest business venture. Rebundle, warehoused in St. Louis and based from Charlotte, N.C. since 2019, is a synthetic hair brand that caters to Black women so they can have more comfort and produce less waste from synthetic hair. The brand also seeks to raise awareness around the harmful impacts of synthetic hair.
Synthetic braids are typically ready to be taken out after a few weeks or months. The removal process results in a big pile of messy hair, which is then thrown into the garbage.
Rebundle, however, is seeking to change this. The company has designed their own recycling program to help combat the negative environmental impact of synthetic hair waste. Currently, Rebundle encourages customers to mail their used hair back to the brand. Afterward, it’s shipped to a facility that will sort it by type of plastic and down-cycle into shreds for outdoor furniture and lawn and garden tools.
“For Black women, finding good, healthy hair products is a challenge. I think it’s great that there are companies trying to fill this need in a proactive way that isn’t just benefiting them but the consumer as well,” said Spence.
Rebundle is also set to launch their plant-based braiding hair, called Braid Better. Made from naturally extracted banana fiber and treated with non-toxic ingredients, Braid Better is fully biodegradable.
“We’ve been working really hard on this product, making sure it matches the texture of Black hair, that it is better for you. Our products will not be made out of the current plastic that synthetic braiding hair is made out of,” said Jessica Sanders, chief scientific officer at Rebundle.
Sanders sees Rebundle as a product made by Black women for Black women, with all their concerns in mind as well as those of the environment.
Neglect from the industry
The synthetic hair industry, after existing for decades, has failed to recognize many areas in which they lack more support: keeping Black people’s hair healthy and sustainability for the environment.
“It’s my belief that the major players in this industry have intentionally left out the primary consumers of decision making and given very little to no access to the manufacturers and the people who make the decisions,” said May.
Because braids for Black women are not seen as a “luxury” hairstyle in the beauty industry, beauty companies see a need to make healthy and luxurious products fitting that community, said Kamilah, a New York hairdresser and braider. She continued that this issue is not the same if she needed to find a healthy or natural weave hair brand. “Some synthetic fibers are too ‘wiry’ and feel/look more plastic-like. Another fiber called toyokalon is soft to the touch but is extremely shiny…Kanekelon looks the most like natural curly, coily, kinky hair blown dry and stretched out,” said Kamilah.
“Even if you’re not itchy, or you don’t break out, your body is still absorbing the toxins”
Kamilah said that when she first started braiding professionally, a few clients expressed that they had adverse reactions to synthetic hair. The safest and most effective alternative to synthetic hair would be human hair–more specifically rocking your own hair, she said with a smirk.
Not only can synthetic hair irritate the person’s scalp while getting it installed, it can also impact the hairdresser installing the hair. Both Kamilah and Carlton said you can experience “braid burn” from the repetitive motion of sliding the hair through your fingers—which causes pain, redness and blistering if the brand is not good quality.
Unlike Kamilah, Carlton hasn’t had any customers complain about irritation, but her mother and grandmother have both experienced inflammation of the scalp from Kanekalon fibers, developing bumps on the scalp and mild bleeding. Regardless of whether or not women experience irritation, May cautions against the use of toxic synthetic hair. “Even if you’re not itchy, or you don’t break out, your body is still absorbing the toxins,” said May.
For the sake of the timeless style only growing in popularity, May wants regulators to take a look at the health and environmental disparity from the toxic materials that the industry is using.
“My hope is that by blowing the whistle, we get the industry to take a closer look at what is being used and we can all look towards safer products,” she said. “Plant-based is an alternative, our products are going to be an alternative, but for the rest of the industry, they need to be on board with using safe products as well.”
A previous version of this article failed to state that Rebundle was based in Charolette N.C. Ciara May’s full name is Ciara Imani May. This article has been updated to reflect both. The Eyeopener regrets these errors.