pH and the Political Economy of Black Hair
Black hair treatments are a great example for thinking about how something like pH could matter for the
intersections of innovation, politics, and commerce. Garrett Morgan, an African American inventor who patented
some of the first versions of the traffic light and gas mask, accidently discovered chemical hair straightening
when researching an alkaline solution to clean sewing machines, and in 1913 started the Morgan Hair Refining
Company. Madame C.J. Walker, who rose from poverty to become America’s first female millionaire, developed her own
scalp treatment formula. She was also an innovator in social justice; for example, her 1917 Hair Culturists Union
of America convention became a rallying point for protests against lynch mobs. In 1957, Bernice Robinson, a
beautician in Charleston, was selected by the NAACP to run an experimental adult education class that would raise
literacy for voting registration. They reasoned that because she owned her own shop, there would be no danger of
getting fired for her activism. These classes became known as Citizenship Schools, and were replicated throughout
the Southern United States.
Many of today’s black hair entrepreneurs have continued this tradition of combining innovation and social justice,
often around the theme of seeking healthier treatments. In South Africa, Thokozile Mangwiro created the “Nyla”
brand of hair treatments and baby oils using an indigenous tradition of Marula nut oil. In Detroit, Sheri Crawley
began selling products with Tea Tree oil, an Indigenous tradition from Australia, and eventually created her own
product line, Pretty Brown Girl, which encourages health and self-esteem for black youth. And Dora Marios in
Tanzania, who provides a voice for low-income communities on her award-winning radio program, has successfully
marketed a coconut baby oil.
One thing all the above have in common is that their ingredients are backed up by scientific research. Take, for
example, Dora Marios’ use of coconut oil on babies: several studies have shown it is effective for helping babies
with low birth weight, skin inflammation and other problems, in some cases far better than mineral oil, which is
the most common baby oil product:
But how do we know it is real research? Crazy claims are made for all sorts of ingredients, and it’s easy to call
something science just by using big words. Here are some clues:
Real research requires comparing the group with the experimental treatment (like coconut oil) to a similar
group with ordinary treatment (such as mineral oil, the “control” group).
Real research is published in real scientific journals. For example, we know “The Journal of Acupuncture and
Meridian Studies” is not science, because “meridians”—lines of magical power—don’t actually exist. But if you
look at the website it appears real. One way to tell is to find a journal’s citation ranking. The higher the
rank, the more scientists have cited it. For example if you look at http://www.scimagojr.com/journalrank.php?category=2708&type=all
you can see how all dermatology journals are ranked. The Journal of Cosmetic Science is #99 out of 139, so
while not a top journal, it still counts as a significant scientific publication. And there we see another
research experiment on coconut oil; in this case, showing it is better for reducing adult hair damage: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12715094.
Real research does not use fake concepts:
“Detox” -- It is common to see advertisements for a “detox” food, pills, cream, etc. But no
substance can remove toxins from your body; that is something only your liver, kidneys, and other organs can
do. And while there are real ways to improve organ function, they are things like daily exercise, avoiding
smoking and drinking, eating fresh vegetables -- not the stuff being marketed by “detox” scams.
“Cleanses your X” (where X is colon, liver, body, blood, etc.) -- see “detox”.
“Burns off the fat” -- L’Occitane, with 2000 boutiques in 90 countries, got caught
advertising weight loss skin creams by the Federal Trade Commission. They have agreed to pay $450,000 to
reimburse customers. There is no such thing as a weight loss cream.
“Cure-all” -- one of the red flags for pseudoscience is when you see claims for curing a long
list of unrelated problems: “cures cystitis, epilepsy, PMS, ADD, autism, heart problems, migraine, psychosis,
poor memory, arthritis....”
“The secret they don't want you to know” -- in the above example, we noted that scientific
tests show that coconut oil outperforms mineral oil, a common commercial ingredient. So it is true that
corporations will sometimes promote ingredients that are less helpful or even harmful (think of tobacco
companies and cigarettes for example). But the science is not a secret. If it is real science, it is
publically available knowledge in established journals.