There are of course other factors that weigh in, like social constructs that have villainized Afro hair for centuries, claiming it’s too big, too coarse and unruly, too distracting or ugly!
The societal pressures can lead women to go above and beyond to dismantle this narrative of ‘Black hair not being good hair’, and the negative connotations around our coils which can become internalised.
“Between my braids, wigs, hair pieces and hair products, I spend on average £2-2.5k per year on my hair” Edna Otutu, 27, a Retail Manager from London tells Glamour sheepishly. For Edna her hair is her biggest investment when it comes to beauty upkeep. Although this may sound like an extortionate amount of money to spend on hair, Edna is not alone.
According to market and consumer data giant Statista the total value of the hair care market in Great Britain was measured at 1.72 billion British pounds in December 2019; with Black British women spending six times more than their white counterparts, yet we only make up around 4% of the female population.
For many Black women, hair is a staple of our identity and a fruit of our heritage, with Black hair being such an integral feature of black history. In fact, in early African civilisations, hairstyles could map a person’s family background, tribe and social status. Black hair has even been used as symbols of political and religious affiliations. It was famously known as a symbolic statement of pride sported amongst the Black Panthers during the civil rights movement. Hair to Black women is an ode to our creativity. It’s our crown, and everywhere we look we see other Black women celebrating the diversity of their hair.
With all of this at stake, it’s no wonder why Black women invest so much time and money on their hair, but what are the reasons for the disparity in our hair expenditure?
Diverse hair requires diverse products
“I think that one of the reasons why Black women collectively spend more money on hair is because our hair itself is more diverse” says Dominique Lescott, founder of afro haircare online marketplace Hair Popp, which boasts an array of UK Black owned brands. “When you talk about afro/curly hair, textures vary wildly and dealing with Black hair as a whole is a lot more intricate than say, caucasian hair.”
There’s also greater versatility within Black hair styling: “Some women prefer wigs or weaves, while others will opt for protective styles like braids, some choose to have it natural, or to manipulate it with heat.” With so many complexities with its upkeep, there are a lot of factors and expenses to consider.
There is often a price that comes with opting to buy products specifically catered to textured hair, as they are not as accessible. Although major retailers like Boots and Superdrug are increasingly seeing the value in stocking brands catering to Black hair, Black women can still struggle to find the specific products they need. Without a full array of options available and appropriate information and support, the trial and error of testing products can come at a cost, and the damage inevitably leads to follow-up repair.
Lockdown bought on a wave of women wanting to take ownership of their hair, which meant they needed to know how to access the right product for their specific texture and state of hair. Lescott says: “The cheaper products that are easily available, such as £2.99 shampoos you would find at the supermarket, are not necessarily suitable for all types of hair including afro/textured hair.
Lack of accessibility essentially means that a lot of Black women shop for repair after years of experimenting with low quality products, as opposed to just shopping for maintenance or prevention.”
Research conducted by retailer Superdrug, showed that 70% of Black and Asian women feel the high street does not cater for their beauty needs. Lescott spotted this gap in the market early on: “When I first started Hair Popp I thought that the price point for the good quality brands we wanted to partner [upwards of £10 for a shampoo] with would be a big issue, but it’s actually not.
Women are prepared to spend more on the right hair care, but one of the main things they wanted access to was knowledge. Knowledge from someone that looks like them and knowledge from someone that really understands and has done the research.”
Making a conscious choice
Many Black women have also embraced conscious consumerism, often driven by the quest to discover the right products for their delicate kinks and curls. “I’m seeing a lot of women looking for products with natural ingredients, over going for the mass-produced silicone/mineral oils based products or those containing potentially harmful ingredients.” says Lescott.
She’s referring to the issue that Black hair products have traditionally been more likely to contain dangerous chemicals. A study conducted by analytics company Elsevier showed hair products marketed towards Black women contain higher percentages of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), than those marked to their caucasian counterparts.
Black women are also questioning if their products are ethically sourced and exactly where they are coming from. Lescott says: “If you buy a product from a Black-owned brand with an ingredient like for example Shea Butter, it’s likely it’s been sourced from an African cooperative that supports the local women harvesting it, enabling them to be independent and self-sufficient.”
Ethical yes, but it can come at a price, with curl specific products such as Flora Curl African Citrus Superfruit Shampoo, £16, and Kiya Cosmetics Hair Growth Oil, £9.99, costing three times more than supermarket equivalents. Other online marketplaces like Jamii UK which host Black businesses across the board, feature brilliant products like Okiki’s Argan Shea Leave-in Hair Conditioner, £12 and The Afro Hair Skin Co. BLOOM Omega Healthy Hair Oil, £22.50.
Plus there’s a host of independent brands to discover such as new cool, contemporary and sustainable brand Airfro, with products such as Airfro 00.3 Dfy Curl Refresh, £18 or established talent Charlotte Mensah’s Manketti Oil Pomade, £52. Black women are increasingly putting their value and trust in the Black Pound and buying these Black-owned, effective but natural products.
Salon or home care?
Due to the complexity of textured hair, many Black women find it very difficult to manage it themselves, yet a salon isn’t always an option. Outside of London, good afro focused hair salons can be hard to come by. A study by Habia revealed that there are 35,704 beauty salons in the UK, but there are only 302 Afro-Caribbean salons, although this study doesn’t account for mobile hairdressers or hairdressers that work from home, which is the route many Black women choose to take.
They often opt for the help of talented acquaintances, the Aunty that lives across the street or travel miles to get their hair done by a friend’s recommended wig/braid lady.
It may be a lack of salon availability or it can also be a money saving choice. Ashling Monica is a hair enthusiast and mobile hairdresser that has braided hair for the likes of popular UK Rapper AJ Tracey tells us: “I started braiding hair because I’d had bad experiences with hairdressers in the past. It took me ages to find a hairdresser that I trust but now she is located over 100 miles away. I had no option but to learn to fend for myself.”
Ashling says some Black Women may not always have the choice to DIY themselves or with friends: “We have to navigate around protective hairstyling, which requires expertise, hours of attention, and more maintenance then perhaps a monthly chop for someone with caucasian hair.”
With fewer reputable salons, hair services for Black women inevitably come at a greater cost, both in time as well as money. While prices for hair services should be in line with the competitors’ market and skill set in the area, you’ll need to be prepared to reach deep in your pockets if you choose to go to a trusty Black-owned salon in Peckham, as it’ll be reflective of London prices.
Real or fake – premiums apply
Then there are the wigs, weaves and everything in between. When straight hair ponytail prices can start at £10, quality afro-styled ones are likely to start at double that, reaching three figures for the real human hair deal, or quality blends of synthetic and human hair. This is likely due to the higher demand in comparison to the much lower supply. You can also expect premiums if you’re looking for synthetic afro-styled extensions, wigs and hair-pieces, which need to be manipulated more in order to achieve and maintain a natural pattern.
The reality is from products to services, Black hair is expensive, and it’s an expense a lot of Black women have little choice in navigating as they cater to one of the things that they treasure the most on their body.
But for all of these expenditure pitfalls, hair does have a way of really building a community. Lescott tells me: ‘A former boss once told me I looked like I had been electrocuted because I had my afro hair out. This is not something I lost sleep over, as it’s not the first nor the last time I will hear hair criticisms, but it makes me more conscious and passionate about it. Afro hair care is more than just an exterior characteristic.
It’s part of my identity, so I will always want to protect that.’ Ashling says, ‘For me the sense of identity, and being able to change my hair because I want and can is enough incentive to fork out that extra penny.’ The comments, microaggressions, the feelings of otherness, make this hair journey complex, but it enables people to come together and feel confident and accepted in the skin they’re in, and you can’t put a price on that.