The Power of Choice: Sodium Hydroxide

This is the first post in our “Power of Choice” series. The “power of choice” means having the knowledge to make informed decisions about the products you are using on your body. We will help you make informed choices by highlighting ingredients that are often found in skin or hair care products that could potentially be harmful to you. Too often the “natural movement” implies that all synthetic molecules are harmful. If that were true, we wouldn’t have many of the life-saving medications we use today.

What is SODIUM HYDROXIDE?

If you have ever had a chemical relaxer, then you have likely heard of sodium hydroxide. It is the ingredient responsible for breaking down the protein structure of textured/curled/kinky hair in order to permanently straighten the hair follicle. Sodium hydroxide is also called “lye” because of its alkaline pH level. The sodium hydroxide content of relaxers can be between 1.5-3%, with a pH factor between 12 and 14.[1] The higher the pH the quicker the reaction but also the more damaging it can be for your hair. This is why the neutralizing step is very important after applying a relaxer. It brings the pH level back town to a skin and hair friendly level of 5 to 7.

Sodium hydroxide has an Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep rating of 3, indicating a low-moderate level hazard rating with a fair amount of data to support it. EWG further states that there is a low level of concern of skin, eyes, or lungs irritation if you are exposed to a high concentration of sodium hydroxide without the proper protective equipment (i.e. gloves, masks, etc). EWG also indicated that there might be a moderate level of risk of non-reproductive organ toxicity but there isn't sufficient evidence to support it.

Did you know that sodium hydroxide can also be found in:

  •   CONDITIONERS

  •   STYLING GELS & CREAMS

  •   MOST MAKEUP (e.g., BB creams, mascara, concealer)

It has even been found in treatments for problematic skin (e.g., eczema/damaged skin creams, rosacea treatments)!

Now before you start dumping all your products, know that sodium hydroxide isn’t just useful in the relaxing process. It is often used as a buffer or adjuster or pH balancer. In fact, the sodium hydroxide in your conditioner and styler is not sufficient to cause damage. It’s function in these products is very different. It is the ingredient that ensures that the rest of the formulation maintains a hair healthy pH level. pH level is not the only thing that makes sodium hydroxide damaging in chemical relaxers, it in the concentration of sodium hydroxide coupled with the other active ingredients. This is not the case in your conditioners or stylers where the concentration is so insignificant that manufacturers aren’t actually required to tell you that it is even in there! Those that do are just trying to be honest, transparent manufacturers.

In fact, the sodium hydroxide in your conditioner and styler is not sufficient to cause damage. It’s function in these products is very different. It is the ingredient that ensures that the rest of the formulation maintains a hair healthy pH level.

 

Still hesitant? Well, there are alternatives to using products with sodium hydroxide. Most products that brand themselves as “all natural” do not contain sodium hydroxide..........that we know of!

 

So what’s your verdict? Will you be trashing your product stash or accepting this ingredient?

 

[1] Standard Textbook of Cosmetology. Chapter 13. Chemical Hair Relaxing and Soft Curl Permanent.