Southfield/New York: The coronavirus economy has few bright spots, but it’s been a boon for products designed for the care and styling of natural Black hair.
Demand was growing even before the lockdowns, and personal-care companies such as Unilever Plc and Procter & Gamble had already expanded their offerings in the $1.8 billion market for all Black-hair products. But 2020 was a watershed moment: Most of the salons and barbershops where Black Americans got their hair straightened, treated or cut closed for several months. Many Black people had little choice but to let their hair go natural.
Since then, sales of some products for natural hair have doubled, according to Unilever, while big chain stores are stocking more of the goods, and entertainers and social influencers have moved to capitalize on the rising popularity of naturally curly and coily hair. The Black Lives Matter protests after the police killing of George Floyd gave added impetus to the cultural acceptance of natural Black hair.
“This is a very interesting time,” said Garrett Donato, a Black Catholic school employee in Detroit who is growing out his hair for the first time in years. “If you’re Black, your hair is Black hair.”
Donato, 33, this summer tried cornrows and an afro shaped by his barber at the Social Club Grooming Co. He’s also using Unilever’s SheaMoisture, a Black-founded natural hair brand that Unilever bought in in 2017, to care for his lengthening beard, he said.
Sales of Black hair products took off after the pandemic lockdowns, according to Unilever and P&G, though neither disclosed actual figures. Grocery chain Kroger Co. has added shelf space for Black hair-care products this year and plans increases next year. Over the past year, CVS Health Corp. says it has increased self space 35% for textured hair and color cosmetics products, including adding new, Black-owned brands. Indian consumer giant Godrej Consumer Products Ltd. in February revived Afro Sheen — the iconic Black hair-care product from the late 1960s — after a two-decade hiatus.
Not to be outdone by the personal-care giants, actresses Taraji P. Henson and Tracee Ellis Ross, along with influencer Ada Rojas, have each launched hair-care lines in the past year or two catering to curly and textured hair under the names Pattern Beauty, TPH by Taraji and Botánika Beauty. Actress Gabrielle Union in July announced the revamp of her Flawless by Gabrielle Union hair care brand for Black hair.
These come as products long used to care for Black hair — Cantu, L’Oreal SA’s Carol’s Daughter and Camile Rose — have gone from dusty bottom shelves or only available at specialty shops to front and center at big box retailers like Target and Walmart, which recently stopped using locked cases for Black beauty products.
Although recent data isn’t yet available, Black hair-care product sales probably got a lift as “Black consumers who are accustomed to relying solely on professionals for all hair services attempt to maintain their hair on their own,” said Toya Mitchell, a senior multicultural analyst, who follows the industry for market research company Mintel Group Ltd.
But going natural can run into workplace discrimination. Black women are more likely to be sent home from work for how they wear their hair, according to surveys sponsored by Dove, along with research from Duke University. The same surveys reported that unstraightened hair is seen as less professional and can hinder career advancement.
Black women have also reported being more likely to receive a copy of a corporate hair policy than non-Black women.
The risk of discrimination has prompted some of the leading makers of hair products — companies that benefit from the sales — to wade into the effort to battle workplace bias against Black hair.
Among the leaders of that campaign is Esi Eggleston Bracey, executive vice president and chief operating officer of North America beauty and personal care at Unilever. The company sells Black-hair products under the Dove and Suave brands, as well as SheaMoisture.
Eggleston Bracey in 2018 spearheaded a coalition with the National Urban League, Color of Change and the Western Center on Law and Poverty to get U.S. states to pass laws banning discrimination based on Black hairstyles. California last year adopted the first so-called Crown law — an acronym for Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair — followed by New York, New Jersey and four other states.
Seven states are weighing similar laws, while 17 others were considering them before Covid ended the legislative season, Eggleston Bracey said.
Even without legislation, there are signs that the acceptance and popularity of black hair is here to stay. Tia Cummings, who was hired in November by P&G’s Walker & Company Brands to help increase sales of Bevel and other brands the consumer-products maker bought in 2018, said the products now are available in 10,000 stores.
Cummings, too, is experimenting with natural styles. She said she used to get her hair straightened weekly before the pandemic.
“Women like myself had to figure out how to embrace our natural hair,” she said.
The same is true of Athena Thomas, who says she used to feel pressure to wear her hair straight in past jobs — though not at her current position as an administrative assistant. Thomas, 34, started posting pictures of the growth of her natural hair on Instagram in June after she ditched extensions and straightening techniques.
“For the longest time in my life I really felt I was pretty if my hair looked straight,” said the Brooklyn, New York, resident, adding that she wore her hair natural for her Sept. 10 wedding. “But wearing my natural hair, it’s just allowing me to showcase myself and my natural beauty.” – Bloomberg
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