May 18, 2000 -- Soft and Beautiful, Dark and Lovely: The names of these products suggest a romantic rendezvous on a moonlit night.
But for children who get into these hair relaxers, the rendezvous can take place in an emergency room, and there's nothing romantic about it. These products, and many other hair relaxers like them, contain what are known as "alkaline caustics." These substances can cause a chemical burn similar to what might happen when a person comes into contact with a strong acid.
Yet, in a chemical sense, they are completely different. Acids and alkalines lie on opposite sides of the 14-point pH scale. The lower you go on the scale, the stronger the acid. The higher you go, the stronger the alkaline. Substances that land in the middle have a pH close to what's normally found in the body.
Hair relaxers have pHs in the 11 to 13 range, and, as a recent report in the journal Pediatrics notes, they commonly cause burns when accidentally eaten or smeared on the skin. The report's author, Daniel A. Rauch, MD, is calling on pediatricians to inform parents about the potential dangers of these products after he treated four children injured by them -- one of them seriously. Rauch is with the department of pediatrics and Jacobi Medical Center/Albert Einsten College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y.
"The most important thing is, he's highlighting that these are extremely caustic chemicals, and because of the way they're promoted -- as containing 'no lye' -- people may not think they are dangerous products," says Rosanne Soloway of the American Association of Poison Control Centers in Washington.
But they certainly can be, says Harold Simmons, R&D chemist at Bronner Brothers in Atlanta, a leading manufacturer of hair relaxers. "As with any chemical you use, you really don't want kids in the same room ... because all it takes is just a second."
Simmons says there's just a small difference in pH between "lye" and "no lye" relaxers. The latter contain ingredients such as calcium hydroxide, he says, and must be activated by adding a solution. Burns from these products might take a little more time to develop, but they will. Lye relaxers, on the other hand, contain sodium hydroxide and act more quickly.
How bad can alkaline burns get? Gary Wasserman, MD, chief of the medical toxicology section at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., still remembers one from nearly 30 years ago. It involved a 2-year-old who got a taste of a caustic-cleaning agent, and suffered severe burns all through his esophagus and stomach, Wasserman tells WebMD. Over the years, the child underwent about a hundred medical procedures to deal with the extensive scarring. The injuries were so bad that doctors eventually created a new esophagus and stomach pouch using a portion of his bowel. He's in good shape today, Wasserman says.