Concerns Arise Over Health Effects of Hair Relaxers in Black Women

by Ella

The potential health risks posed by chemical hair relaxers to Black women have come under increased scrutiny, with several recent studies pointing to a concerning link between these products and health issues, including uterine cancer. This matter recently prompted Democratic Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Shontel Brown of Ohio to push for a ban on hair-smoothing and hair-straightening products containing formaldehyde, a known carcinogenic substance, leading to a proposal by the Food and Drug Administration.


As further research sheds light on the potential dangers, numerous Black individuals have initiated lawsuits against prominent beauty and cosmetic retailers such as L’Oreal and Revlon, asserting that their use of chemical hair straighteners has led to health problems, including uterine cancer, fibroid tumors, and infertility.


A recent study published on October 10 by Boston University, as part of the Black Women’s Health Study (BWHS), revealed that postmenopausal Black women who used chemical hair relaxers more than twice a year or for over five years had an elevated risk of developing uterine cancer.


In this comprehensive study, involving 44,798 Black women over a span of 22 years, researchers observed a higher rate of uterine cancer among postmenopausal Black women who reported using chemical hair relaxers for at least a decade, irrespective of usage frequency. The primary goal of the 22-year study was to gain a better understanding of Black women’s health and the contributing factors to cancer disparities.


Kimberly Bertrand, the lead author of the Boston University study and an associate professor of medicine at Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine, expressed the hope that by highlighting the potential risks associated with hair relaxers, this information can raise awareness and lead to the adoption of safer alternatives.

For Rep. Pressley, addressing these concerns touches upon a generational issue that Black women have confronted for an extended period. She remarked, “For generations, systemic racism and anti-Black hair sentiment have forced Black women to navigate the extreme politicization of hair. As a result, Black women have turned to straightened or relaxed hair as an attempt to advance socially and economically. But regardless of how we wear our hair, we should be able to show up in the world without putting our health at risk, and manufacturers should be prevented from making a profit at the expense of our health.”

Key Research Findings:

Several studies have drawn attention to the harmful effects of chemical hair relaxers. Last year, a major study by the National Institutes of Health established a significant link between chemical hair straighteners and a higher risk of uterine cancer. The study, encompassing 33,497 women aged 35 to 74 over nearly 11 years, reported 378 cases of uterine cancer.

The BWHS study unveiled that women who used hair relaxers more than twice a year or for over five years faced over a 50% increased risk of uterine cancer compared to those who rarely or never used such products.

Furthermore, in 2021, the BWHS discovered that Black women using hair products containing lye, commonly found in salon relaxers, at least seven times annually for more than 15 years faced a 30% higher risk of breast cancer. It’s worth noting that, while Black women have a 4% lower breast cancer incidence rate compared to white women, they experience a 40% higher breast cancer death rate.

Hair relaxers have also been associated with the development of fibroids and early puberty in girls, which can elevate the risk of metabolic syndromes like obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases in adulthood.

The harmful nature of hair relaxers can be attributed to the presence of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as phthalates and parabens, which affect hormone levels and disrupt the endocrine system. These chemicals can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled, posing risks to individuals, especially Black women who use these products.

Despite the health concerns, chemical hair relaxers are not subjected to stringent regulation by the federal government. The complex labeling of these products often conceals harmful ingredients under names like “fragrance” and “preservatives,” making it challenging for consumers to understand the potential risks they entail.

In response to these findings, the Food and Drug Administration recently proposed a ban on hair-straightening and hair-smoothing products containing formaldehyde, acknowledging the public health concerns.

As researchers continue to explore the link between hair relaxers and health issues, questions persist about the products currently available on the market and their potential long-term effects. The factors contributing to the increased risk of uterine cancer among Black women, from environmental influences to racism and genetics, remain subjects of ongoing investigation.

Black women who have used or continue to use chemical hair relaxers are encouraged to monitor their health and consult with medical professionals for early detection and treatment of potential health issues. Screening mechanisms for uterine cancer, unlike those for diseases like breast cancer, are not well-established, making proactive health monitoring crucial.


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