This is the foreword I wrote for TRUE ROOTS: What Quitting Hair Dye Taught Me About Health and Beauty by Moms Clean Air Force’s editorial director Ronnie Citron-Fink:
When I was quite young, my stylish mother taught me to describe her hair color as “salt and pepper.” I found this an appealing idea, and somehow it made me think everyone’s hair color bore some relationship to food: Hair the color of strawberries, cinnamon, oats or—well, if I had ever eaten such a thing, I would have seized on the idea of hair the color of jet black squid ink. As this is a book about hair and what it is costing us, in health and in dollars, to maintain its splendiferous colors, it is only natural that mothers should march right in at the beginning. It is a universal truth that mothers have an outsize influence in the way we assess and appreciate (or denigrate) ourselves.
My mother’s hair began to turn gray when she was in high school, she told me, so I only ever knew her as sporting that dramatic color. The “salt” was bright silver and the “pepper” was ink black. I recall people stopping her to ask what brand of dye she was using. To which, with a haughty sniff, she would reply, Nothing. Not that my mother was a naturalist. I don’t think I ever saw her without bright red lipstick. Throughout our lives together, my own hair was among her many vexations with my sense of style. By the time I was a teenager, it was so long and unruly that decades later, my own son, watching home movies of me and my sisters, exclaimed in wondrous horror that I looked like a cavewoman.
All of which is to say: hair carries a lot of messages, sends a lot of signals. We see hair before we look into anyone’s eyes. When I first met Ronnie Citron-Fink, ten years ago, her hair was the jet black of squid ink, long, shiny, lustrous and thick. She kept it dark with dye, through painstaking hours sitting in a hairdresser’s chair.
Ronnie had just joined me to help launch Moms Clean Air Force. We have become an organization of over a million moms (and probably lots of dads, and aunts, and grandparents too) uniting to demand clean air and climate safety for our families, and for the sake of our children’s health.
One of the campaigns we focused on in our first few years was the reformation of an outdated law governing chemical safety in this country . Actually, outdated doesn’t begin to describe the shortcomings of the way the U.S. reviews chemicals before they get into the stuff we eat, drink, breathe, and slather over our bodies, day after day after day. That’s the rub. We have systems to test small doses of single chemicals; we don’t have systems to test what happens over time, when a possible carcinogen is applied daily, monthly, yearly. We don’t have systems to test what happens when individual chemicals interact with one another as they are absorbed into our bloodstreams.
We are the guinea pigs for the chemical industry.
We think that because we are buying something at a store we trust, it must be safe. That if it doesn’t immediately make us sick, or give us a rash, it must be okay. We trust that our government agencies are keeping watch over us—in the case of cosmetics and hair dyes, that would be the Food and Drug Administration. We are mistaken, sadly. The beauty industry is gigantic: 70 billion dollar a year. The agency that regulates what you put on your hair to color it—and the cosmetics you put on your face to color it: tiny. And dangerously understaffed with 27 people and an 8 million dollar budget. Nowadays, as Ronnie makes clear, more than ever before, the FDA is mostly captive to the powerful chemical industry. Day after day, year after year, women, men, children, our babies, even, are exposed to carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, allergens. It is almost impossible to believe, but it is true.
And our hair says it all.
Ronnie and I sat together one afternoon in a meeting about toxic chemicals and the limitations of regulatory agencies. She was, as always, running her fingers through her hair. And then I noticed, suddenly, she stopped. And looked over at me, her still jet black eyebrows high, her gaze critical—and horrified. I could tell what she was thinking: what am I doing to my health by dying my hair? Thus began her journey—I would call it an adventure—through what turns out to be the head-spinning maze of loopholes, dark corners, and hidden traps of a multi-billion dollar a year hair care industry.
There is a reason, she reports, that hairdressers are three times more likely to get breast cancer, five times more likely to get bladder cancer; they are much more likely than the average population to have lung and larynx cancers as well as multiple myelomas. That reason lies in the tongue-twisting, if not unpronounceable strings of chemicals in the dyes we use to maintain hair color. And that’s just the chemicals that are listed on the tubes and bottles cluttering our bathroom shelves, the bottles and tubes we reach for, day after day, month after month, year after year.
Another point Ronnie makes is that cosmetics manufacturers don’t even have to tell us what’s in the stuff they sell us—as one lawyer, who, by a weird coincidence, specializes in asbestos litigation, learned when she had her child’s makeup tested, after her young daughter broke out in a rash while playing with it. She found that her makeup contained asbestos.
Never mind “natural.” For the most part, even so-called natural dyes—the rinses and tints and gentle formulae—contain what one activist calls a “witch’s brew” of chemicals. Even many plant dyes contain suspicious ingredients. Products aimed at the African-American market, often containing straighteners, are even more suspiciously potent. Pregnant women are usually advised to stop dying their hair altogether, because the dyes have a particularly pernicious impact on fetal development.
The wonder is that we still reach for those bottles, day after day, month after month, year after year. Ronnie explores the history of the beauty advertising industry that has risen up to convince us of how deeply we need what’s in those bottles. We are told—by a thriving cosmetic industry and the magazines and websites that are their willing, and financially dependent, colluders—that these chemicals color us in ways that are not only attractive, but necessary. Necessary to maintain our senses of happiness, success, companionability, youth. Chemicals, regardless of their toxicity, are the key to being beautiful.
Needless to say, a book like this, stripping away, like peroxide, the layers of deceit around what our hair dyes are doing to us, makes me angry, very angry. And very alarmed. Though Ronnie is fastidious about not being judgmental about anyone’s decision to dye her or his hair—after all, her story shows her own attachment to the evil genies in the bottles—about a third of the way into reading it, I put down the manuscript and texted my little sister to beg her to stop coloring her hair.
I feel anger at the FDA, for doing next to nothing to prove that our products are safe. I feel anger at the beauty industry, for playing fast and loose with information—and stoking our insecurities and preying on our vulnerabilities. I feel anger at the chemical industry for using its vast resources to block reform. The only person I can’t feel angry towards is my mother. For once.
I get it. We don’t all have to love that salt and pepper look. But this book proves one important thing: we all have to rise up and demand, loudly, clearly, and passionately, that the FDA and the beauty industry do a better, more honest job of assuring our safety. That the beauty industry stop selling products that contain chemicals that are linked with cancer, chemicals that disrupt our hormone systems. That they stop hiding behind the vagaries of just how difficult it is to pinpoint which chemicals caused which hideous disease over years and years of multiple exposures—just as the tobacco industry did so cynically, immorally. That they innovate towards safety.
We are racing for cures for heartbreaking diseases. We should also focus on another race: a race for the causes. Starting with those chemicals we slather on our bodies, and bake into our hair, day after day, month after month, year after year. We consumers are powerful—but not just because we can boycott products. That often results in what is called “regrettable substitutions” of one dangerous chemical for another.
We are powerful because we can raise our voices and demand that our lawmakers (who are, after all, mostly coloring their hair, too, come to think of it) do better by us. That kind of strength doesn’t come in a bottle. But it might just make what comes in those bottles safer, so that day after day, month after month, year after year, we are not poisoning ourselves.
That’s real beauty.
TRUE ROOTS BOOK GIVEAWAY
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