Thursday, March 31, 2011

What a LYE: Household Bleach and Hair Relaxers

What does household bleach and hair relaxers have in common?  Well, I guess I gave the answer away in the title, but if you still do not know the answer is LYE.  Lye is the common name for sodium hydroxide so I will be using them interchangeably.  This chemical can be found in most household cleaners, all stripping agents, pool chlorinators, and hair and body cosmetics. 

Lye has been used for hundreds of years and in the begin humans made it out of wood ash and water.  According to references on, “It is theorized that tribal people could have discovered this solution by washing cooking supplies which were laden with animal fat and cooking ash in water, inadvertently making the first soaps.”  But for the sake of “progress”, lye was later made with all man-made materials and no longer all natural.

We all use or have used products containing lye without considering the affects it has on our body and our environment.  Bleach is one of the most used products in households and most of us know that bleach is powerful enough to discolor and burn a hole in our clothes.   “Household bleach and pool chlorinator solutions are typically stabilized by a significant concentration of lye…as part of the manufacturing reaction. Skin contact will produce caustic irritation or burns due to defatting and saponification of skin oils and destruction of tissue. The slippery feel of bleach on skin is due to this process,” based on references on Wikipedia.

I must tell you that researching the affects of lye was a daunting task because there are very little studies on lye.  The studies that I did come across stated that small amounts of lye or sodium hydroxide did not seem to show any affects on humans.  But think about it for a moment, there are thousands and thousands of chemicals that we use that the general public is not aware of.  Some of the chemicals that we all know are harmful are continuously used on our bodies and in our homes. So I am no longer surprised by the lack of research on chemicals like sodium hydroxide.  Why spend the money on research when consumers choose to not research what they purchase or demand that changes are made to the products that we use?  You know what people say, ignorance is bliss.
Lye is used in cosmetic products as well. One of those products is hair relaxers. “With a pH of about 12, similar to that of household ammonia or soap, chemical relaxers are among the most caustic cosmetic products on the market”, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental organization. “Along with hair dyes, hair straighteners [hair relaxers] are the source of more complaints to the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Cosmetics and Colors than almost any other product.

I am guilty.  I paid people to put hair relaxers in my hair for fifteen years.  I remember my scalp being burnt so bad, that I my husband thought I had small rocks in my hair.  When I told him that my scalp was burnt from the chemicals that made my hair look flowing and beautiful, he thought I was crazy and urged me to go to the hospital.  What can I say, you live and you learn.

 Krissah Thompson, a Washington Post staff writer, reported “the emphasis on natural ingredients in hair products is growing. But there are no regulatory standards for labeling a personal-care product "organic" or "natural," a term that is even more ambiguous. “It's a trend that's been under way for a number of years, to be more natural and green and sustainable and all the things that seem to be popular now, and the move is mostly driven by consumer demand, said John Bailey, the chief scientist at the Personal Care Products Council, a trade group. "The cosmetics industry has always been good at responding to what consumers want."”

For the past seven years, Sean Gray, senior analyst for the Environmental Working Group, has been part of the team producing EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database. He stated “almost every product the non informed consumer uses—from your morning shower, to every time you wash your hands, to the time you wash your face at night and even in brushing your teeth—you can be exposed again and again. We’re seeing all these phenomena, like earlier puberty in girls and later puberty in boys, increased type 2 diabetes—which could be weight-related or environment-related—even an increase in juvenile type 1 diabetes, more birth defects. These things and others could indeed be related to all the parabens we are literally bathed in on a daily basis. That’s hard because we don’t have the studies yet to prove that they’re as bad as everyone in the environmental [advocacy] world believes them to be. The early data looks pretty bad, and it could be a lot worse.”

I am writing this post while washing clothes without the use of bleach.  I stop using bleach so I can decrease the amount of lye I use on my body and my environment.  The last time I purchased bleach was three months ago and my whites are not as bright as they were before, so I started to research bleach alternatives.  Most often oxygen bleach is recommended.  There are several different kinds of oxygen bleach.  The author of the blog the Pink and Green – Going Green with Six Daughters does an excellent job at breaking down the differences. 
The Lauren Daniels May/June Campaign will feature ecoSTORE USA’s household products, which consist of oxygen bleach named Pure Oxygen Whitener.  Like all oxygen bleach, Pure Oxygen Whitener, contains sodium percarbonate.  To make sodium percarbonate, you must use treated natural soda ash or mix natural borax with peroxide, which can occur naturally in nature.  The author of the blog the Pink and Green – Going Green with Six Daughters also did a great job of listing the advantages and disadvantages of using oxygen bleach as a cleaning, brightening agent:

 Advantages Oxygen Bleaches 
 • Better long term shelf stability than liquid hydrogen peroxide products
 • Acts as a disinfectant on both bacteria and viruses likely to be encountered in the home
 • Brightens fabrics
 • Oxygen bleaches can be mixed or used with other household cleaners
 • Non-toxic to animals, plants and humans
 • Very environmentally friendly as they break down into natural soda ash and/or borax  after the oxygen is released

 Disadvantages of Oxygen Bleaches
• Oxygen bleaching products can cost more to use than standard cleaning products
•They take time to dissolve in water
• While very effective, oxygen bleaches can take longer to work
• They are not suited for some finer grades of silk or wool

Now the hair relaxers – STAY AWAY.  Hair relaxer with or without lye is bad for your hair and for your health.  I stopped paying for someone to put lye in my head.  I have let my natural curls shine though with the use of natural products like henna and bentonite clay.  So, I have caught on to the lye and my hair, my body, my clothes, and my environment is better for it.



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