“The results came back that I had heavy metal poisoning, and the lead was off the charts,” the 'Lucifer' actress tells PEOPLE
The Lucifer star tells PEOPLE exclusively that it happened after wearing seemingly harmless hair extensions.
Throughout her career, she has worn all types of hair extensions — glued in, taped in, sewn in — but in 2018 she used metal clip-in extensions for the first time.
“I put them in for a potential indie film that ended up not happening. I was like, okay, well they're in now and hair extensions are not cheap so I just kept them in,” the model and actress tells PEOPLE, noting that her hair extensions would typically last a couple months.
Two months after installing them, Helfer, 49, says her scalp started to feel tender and sore, among other unusual symptoms.
“I would lay in bed and just press on my head because my scalp was hurting. I couldn't really floss my teeth because my gums were hurting. I would wake up and feel like my skin under my eyes looked a little sunburnt,” she recalls. “Just everything was kind of irritated.”
“Then after three months, I was filming on Swat and [the hairstylist] started going, ‘You have alopecia happening? You've got six or eight bald spots on the top of the crown of your head.’ So I immediately had them taken out the next day because by that point I knew something was wrong.”
While taking out the hair extensions, Helfer says she noticed the metal clips were a green color, comparing it to “cheap costume jewelry that turns your ears green.” She decided to keep them and show her doctor, who immediately sent her to a dermatologist.
Helfer’s dermatologist then referred her to an allergist, but “nothing came up on the allergies in terms of metal.” She recalls feeling “overwhelmed and frustrated” without any answers. But with the hair extensions out, the Canadian model-turned-actress immediately felt some relief in her scalp.
As weeks went by, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was still wrong.
“I was still just feeling off and I couldn't really put my finger on it,” Helfer admits. “When I was filming, I was having trouble remembering my lines. I felt foggy, just general malaise. I was sometimes kind of nauseous. I'd walk up a flight of stairs and start huffing and puffing. I just felt like I couldn't remember things.”
The Battlestar Galactica star continues, “Two or three weeks later, I was at a friend's birthday party and a mutual acquaintance was talking to me and said, ‘You seem a little off.’ I was explaining my symptoms and he said, ‘One time I swallowed a filling and I got heavy metal poisoning. You should go get that tested.’ ”
Shortly after that conversation in early 2019, Helfer decided to visit her friend’s doctor for the tests.
“The results came back that I had heavy metal poisoning, and the lead was off the charts,” she recalls.
Heavy metal poisoning occurs when microscopic molecules of metals — like lead, mercury and arsenic — accumulate within your body after exposure, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Symptoms of heavy metal poisoning include abdominal pain, chills, dehydration, feeling weak, and nausea or vomiting. More severe symptoms include abnormal heartbeat, anemia, brain damage or memory loss, kidney damage, liver damage, difficulty breathing and more.
“It was a definite relief,” Helfer says of her diagnosis. “It's almost like a light bulb moment of like, ‘Oh okay, this makes sense. Now I can grasp onto something to fix it as opposed to just feeling a little lost.’ I could do the treatments and hopefully not have any kind of permanent damage.”
For the next several months, Helfer was treated with cortisone shots on her bald spots. She also underwent chelation therapy, which uses an IV to remove the metals from the body.
“I probably did about 15 chelation treatments over the next year, and that gradually started making me feel better.
“I wasn't bedridden, but it certainly was affecting me. So once I started on the treatments they absolutely helped. After every few treatments, I would do a test again and you could see the metal levels starting to decline. But it took a few months… and the hair regrowth took a couple of years.”
Now, Helfer tells PEOPLE that she’s feeling good, and she hopes her story can encourage others to be more conscious when it comes to choosing their hair extensions, especially those that are permanent and meant to be left in for long periods of time.
“There are different types of hair extensions but the ones that I had, they were just coated. And over time, you swim, you sauna, you work out, you brush your hair, you wash your hair, and the coating wears off,” she explains. “And then metal was just seeping into my scalp and killing the hair with the follicle and unfortunately giving me metal poisoning.”
Helfer stresses, “I think it's something that is important for people to know or think about if they are using those types of clips in their hair. Because those types of extensions are meant to stay in for three or four months at a time. And that's when the damage can happen.”
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Read the original article on People.