Why is it still so difficult to buy Afro hair products on the high street?

As a Black person living in the UK, there are many different ways in which your ‘otherness’ can be reinforced.

One of them is an inability to easily access the specific kinds of products you need to be able to clean and care for your hair.

As a Black mixed-race teenager growing up in a majority-white suburb of Manchester, I remember the monthly pilgrimages to the other side of the city to find the Black hair shops that sold conditioner and shampoo that would work to detangle and cleanse my curls.

I couldn’t just pop to the local supermarket if we ran out, I couldn’t nip to the high street if I fancied trying a different product. Walking through aisle after aisle of products that were not for me left a clear feeling that I didn’t belong.

More than a decade later, after the rise of the natural hair movement and many campaigns highlighting the problem of hair discrimination – has anything changed?

Research commissioned by Superdrug found that 70% of Black and Asian women feel the high street does not cater to their beauty needs, and many people of colour are still experiencing difficulty in finding the products they need in mainstream shops.

Jessica is a Black woman living in a small town just outside of Stafford in the midlands. She says she still struggles to find everything she needs for herself and her young daughter on the high street.

‘It’s really demoralising, if I’m honest,’ Jessica tells Metro.co.uk.

‘There is nowhere on my high street that sells any kind of Black hair products. Not the supermarkets, or the chemists. I have to buy online.

‘I’m a busy mum, and it adds another layer of complexity when I have to remember in advance to make sure we never run out of conditioner, shampoo, curl cream, and oils. Because if we run out last minute, I can’t just go and quickly get some more.

‘It is such a privilege to be able to stroll into any shop and just know that you will at least be able to buy a product that will work on your hair. So many people just take that for granted, but Black women never can.

‘I would like high streets to reflect the communities that shop there. I am not the only Black person in the town where I live, not by a long way. Shops should do more to cater to the needs of an increasingly diverse community.’

Since moving to London, I have found that accessing Afro hair products is much easier. The high streets of Finsbury Park and Wood Green have dedicated Black hair shops that sell everything from deep conditioners to silk bonnets. And even most of the mainstream shops now have a shelf or two dedicated to Afro products.

A spokesperson from Sainsbury’s said that they now offer 26 different Afro hair products in supermarkets and online.

‘We’re also reviewing our range and hope to offer more choice in the future,’ they added.

Tesco has a world beauty fixture in around 60 of their stores, which includes brands that cater specifically for Afro and textured hair. They say that they extend their range of Afro products to meet the demand, so it a process of continual review.

We also reached out to Asda and Morrisons, but are yet to receive a breakdown of how many of their stores stock Afro hair products.

For those who don’t live in London, or diverse cities where the demand is higher, accessing Afro hair products is still a challenge. Dad and entrepreneur Luke Carthy struggled so much finding products for his and his family’s hair that he decided to launch his own website – Afrodrops – to create an online space dedicated to Black hair products.

‘I think the inequality in this area comes down to a lack of education within senior buying teams and a sheer unwillingness to put any effort into this category of hair products,’ Luke tells Metro.co.uk.

‘A lack of education is no longer an excuse. Retailers need to diversify their hair care specialists and buying teams to get that much-needed product on to high street shelves. Remaining silent and ignorant is not okay anymore. Representation is important.’

Luke has made a commitment to never selling relaxers; instead focusing on natural products that will encourage users to love their hair and embrace it.

‘As a Black man with children, it constantly makes me feel that the high street is saying, “We don’t see you,”‘ says Luke. ‘What’s even more frustrating is sometimes seeing aisles and shelves of specialist goods such as gluten-free food or biodegradable detergents, but not a single Afro-centric hair product.

‘Don’t get me wrong, seeing these types of items is great. But it cuts deeper when there’s so little effort in Afro hair care. To me and to many other people who look like me and my kids, that’s a silent yet loud and hurtful statement.

‘You feel unimportant, unaccommodated for. This might sound dramatic to those who have not experienced it, but having to go to a specialist Afro shop elsewhere is the equivalent of having Black-only buses or toilets.

‘It’s low-key exclusion and it’s part of why so many Black men, women and children have trouble accepting their hair in the UK.’

Luke says that the fact that we are still having to talk about this issue in 2020 is a problem in itself.

‘It’s not okay to have 30 flavours of vape in stock in the supermarket but not a single Afro hair care product on the shelf,’ he says.

‘It’s not okay to watch TV and see straight, shiny hair and plenty of products to accommodate for European hair types, but not a single advert or product advertised for curly or Afro hair.

‘We want young people to see themselves when shopping. It’s so important for self-esteem, confidence, and for people with Afro hair to understand that their hair is just as beautiful as European hair, it’s just different. Ultimately, It’s just equality.’

It’s easy to assume that issues of hair care and accessing products is something superficial or frivolous, an issue that is not very important. But for Black people, hair is political. Children are still punished and excluded from school for wearing their natural hair, adults face discrimination or even dismissal at work.

This week, the UK’s first Black hair code for schools and workplaces – The Halo Code – was launched to champion the rights of staff and students to embrace Afro hairstyles, and fight back against hair discrimination.

‘For many Black employees, battling workplace dress codes – official or unofficial – is part of everyday life. We are forced to choose between our career on the one hand, and our cultural identity and hair health on the other,’ explains the founders of the code.

‘We’ve heard heartbreaking stories of Black people humiliated at work because our hair was deemed unprofessional, unruly, unkempt, a distraction to others.’

The very existence of this code speaks of the need for greater equality and understanding when it comes to Afro hair. Improving access to Black hair products could be a step towards improving attitudes around Afro styles, and at the very least help those with Afro hair to feel seen and accepted.

‘What I will say is that the situation is improving slightly,’ says Luke.

‘High street brands like Superdrug and Boots, are making improvements and that’s really encouraging to see.

‘But we’ve still a long way to go, and this physical store gap is why I’ve created afrodrops for an online solution.’

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