“My white friends who have straight hair have been telling me that this literally caused their hair to fall out,” a TikTok user says, clutching a little bottle of hair oil. This post is one of many spoof reviews appearing on social media for Mielle Organics’ rosemary mint growth hair oil, posted with one purpose: to deter white people from buying it.
Without moisture, afro hair can become frizzy and brittle – which is why hair oil like this one is so useful. When the beauty influencer Alix Earle posted a TikTok video on 28 December naming it as one of her favourite Amazon purchases of the year because it had given her “tremendous hair growth”, few could have predicted that it would spark such a backlash. But soon after, black women began to post that the product was selling out in hair and beauty stores in the US and on sites such as Amazon – and that the fresh demand was causing the price to rise. Claims that the product was being “gentrified” swiftly followed. Some sought to lead naive new customers astray with fake negative reviews, or byrecommending comically unrelated black hair products as a like-for-like alternative, such as Just For Me – a chemical straightener.
To understand the viral outrage and fierce gatekeeping over what at first appears to be an innocuous beauty tip, you need to understand some crucial context: the beauty industry is a notoriously inequitable space for black women. Being able to walk into a high-street beauty store such as Boots or Superdrug and find products that cater to darker skin tones and afro hair textures is only a very recent phenomenon. The revered makeup artist Pat McGrath has said that her mother had to use cocoa powder on her face because she couldn’t find the right shade of foundation. Even now, the choices available will vary wildly depending on where you are in the country. This leaves us having to visit specialist black hair shops, which weren’t even open for long periods during the pandemic as they weren’t deemed essential – while Boots, pharmacies and supermarkets with beauty stock remained open.
This lack of availability doesn’t reflect a lack of demand. Just last year, the Black Pound report showed that on average, minority-ethnic consumers in the UK spent 25% more a month than other consumers on health and beauty products. According to a report from TreasureTress released last November, black people make up 2% of the adult population, but10% of beauty spending. In the US, black consumers spend nearly nine times more than their non-black counterparts on hair and beauty products, yet they face a similarly limited consumer landscape.
Black hair shops are rarely black-owned, and their products often aren’t either (an irony highlighted in the new ITVdrama Riches). But despite being largely absent from powerful positions in the beauty industry, black women wield enormous influence over beauty trends, including among non-black consumers eager to follow their lead. This has boosted the popularity of brands such as SheaMoisture, a black-owned brand that took note of its widening appeal and released an advertfeaturing mostly white women and one loose-textured, light-skinned model talking about their struggles with curly hair. They pulled the ad due to the resulting uproar from loyal customers who felt the brand was erasing its original champions: dark-skinned women with much tighter coils.
MailOnline and Fox have covered the Mielle rosemary oil controversy with headlines such as “influencer is accused of racism for using hair oil ‘made for black women’” and “Beauty influencer accused of stealing after using hair product designed for black women”. And when I first saw the uproar about Mielle’s oil, my first thought was that it felt like a stretch to say that white women discovering the benefits of oiling is an act of cultural theft. Wanting to find ways to aid hair growth and help with length retention are fairly universal beauty goals that apply across racial lines.
But consider this troubling fact. Research has suggested that young girls who used hair oils containing certain chemicals start their periods earlier, which in turn is a risk factor for breast cancer. Then Mielle comes along with a supposedly natural, safe and effective alternative – but one that is now increasingly unavailable due to its new TikTok fame among white users. Black women’s frustration with the beauty industry is about far more than the inconvenience of having to travel further for the right product and paying a premium for it.
Thanks in part to our lack of representation in the industry, a lot of the products marketed to us are actually dangerous. Black women’s hair products are more likely to be toxic than those promoted to the rest of the population. One in 12 of the beauty products aimed at black women in the US contains hazardous ingredients such as lye, parabens and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. Oxford University found that using lye-based hair relaxers regularly for at least 15 years increased the risk of breast cancer by almost a third, while Harvard found about 50% of black women’s hair products contain chemicals that increase the likelihood of developing diabetes or cardiovascular diseases, and having pre-term births.
This debate isn’t about starting a race war against white women, or leading a movement to ban them from oiling their scalps. Instead, it stems from valid anxieties around beauty industry practices. It’s a stress signal. Black women have to put in so much work to find safe products that work for them – they’re just asking companies they helped popularise not to desert them so they have to begin their search all over again.
Of course, the wider success of a black-owned brand is one that should be celebrated by the community if it remains available and accessible. Black women are just tired: tired of being mistreated, and tired of being undervalued by the retailers and brands that market to and profit from them.