Are Hair Relaxers Really Causing Cancer? Everything You Need To Know

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I still vividly remember the last time I got a hair relaxer treatment; from the near-immediate tingling on the top of my head to the foul but recognizable stench of the chemicals, none of it was fun. I’d been used to the scalp burns at that point, but that last session left me with a dry, flakey, patch on the back of my head that took months to heal.
“We've known that burns aren't good, we've known the smells aren't good, we've known stylists who have struggled with their health,” Traci Bethea, an assistant Professor of oncology at Georgetown University, tells Unbothered. “And we've always made these maybe implicit cost-benefit analyses, like the value was worth the burn or the value was worth the smell.”
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I knew slathering my roots with the whitish paste of relaxer cream probably wasn’t a good idea, it wasn’t until recently that I realized (or accepted) that relaxers could be doing far more than just roasting my scalp, and that this grooming practice could actually be deadly. 
The most recent study by the National Institutes of Health into the potential dangers of chemical hair straighteners found that women who used them were at higher risk for uterine cancer compared to women who did not. The study also found that women who reported frequent use of hair straightening products, (with “frequent” being defined as more than four times in the previous year), were more than twice as likely to go on to develop uterine cancer compared to those who did not use the products.
“This was the first epidemiologic evidence of an association between hair straighteners/relaxers and uterine cancer risk,” says Dr. Alexandra White, an epidemiologist with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences who is also the study’s lead author. “More studies are needed to confirm these findings, especially in racially and ethnically diverse populations given that hair product use varies notably among women of different race and ethnicities.”
The research also showed that “60% of the participants who reported using relaxers in the previous year were self-identified Black women.” Knowing this, Dr. White and her colleagues were careful to note that the relationship between straightener use and uterine cancer incidence was not impacted by race. This means that Black women as a group are disproportionately affected by the adverse health effects brought on by relaxers — but that’s simply because we use them more. 
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“Because Black women use hair straightening or relaxer products more frequently and tend to initiate use at earlier ages than other races and ethnicities, these findings may be even more relevant for them,” points out Che-Jung Chang, a research fellow in the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch.
And though we have more information about these products now than ever before, it’s important to note that research so far has been done through epidemiological studies so they don’t actually prove that these products cause cancer. Still, experts say that the data we do have, tells us enough to be extremely cautious. 
“The preponderance of evidence supporting a positive association of personal care product (PCP) use, especially relaxers (and hair dyes), with breast cancer specifically and hormonally driven cancers generally, suggests that it is time to intervene — despite limitations in cancer epidemiology research,” Bethea and her colleagues wrote in a recent editorial about the new research.

Hair relaxers aren’t new — why are we just finding this out now?

It’s taken so long to sound the alarm about these products, Bethea says, because there historically hasn't been as much attention paid to issues relating to Black women's health. These illnesses also take time to develop and need to be studied over prolonged use of the chemical.
“Most adult cancers don't develop overnight; it may take decades between what we think [is] an important exposure, until the cancer is clinically detectable,” she explains.  

It's important for us to call out the fact that many of these products have been aggressively marketed toward Black women for decades [and] that many of these products have such a chemical soup, that we don't even know what women are being exposed to.

Traci Bethea, assistant Professor of oncology, Georgetown University
And, in what few studies were being done on personal care products and their potential dangers throughout the years, there weren’t enough Black women being tested or carrying out the research.
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“The people who were getting the financial support to do these studies weren't Black, [and] didn't have Black women at the table helping to make decisions,” says Bethea. “And so the research questions of interest are affected by who has influence on how research is done.”
Back in 2017, Adana Llanos, an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University tried to help remedy this dearth of Black women study subjects when she became a co-investigator on the Women's Circle of Health Study, an ongoing research project that aims to better understand the way breast cancer occurs in Black women. The study included roughly 50% Black and 50% white women. 
In that study, they also found that hair dye use in Black women was associated with increased risk of breast cancer.
“We know that Black women are using these products much more frequently than other groups,” Llanos said. She and her colleagues found that roughly 90% of the Black women in that 2017 study reported using chemical relaxers. 

Victim blaming and beauty standards

This wide disparity accounts, in large part, for why many people are quick to blame Black women for “choosing” to use these products, and why virtually all of the media’s reporting on these studies seems to only highlight the risks for Black women, even though all the statistics in these studies apply to white women too.  
“Some of the narratives that I've seen online are really focused on Black women as though Black women [should] make better choices, or Black women [shouldn’t] straighten their hair with chemicals and just use heat or go natural,” says Bethea. 
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Black women [were] told that their natural hair was unacceptable and... this glorification of looser curls, longer hair and “finer” textures has in turn spawned an industry that feeds off that very prejudice. 

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This type of framing is inaccurate and unhelpful because it completely disregards the centuries that Black women spent being told that their natural hair was unacceptable and that they needed to appear as close to whiteness as possible in order to be approved by society. And this glorification of looser curls, longer hair and “finer” textures has in turn spawned an industry that feeds off that very prejudice. 
“I think it's important for us to call out the fact that many of these products have been aggressively marketed toward Black women for decades [and] that many of these products have such a chemical soup, that we don't even know what women are being exposed to,” Bethea says.

What now? Is it time to give up relaxers? 

With new research coming out all the time, It can be difficult to know what to do moving forward — especially after decades of using these products. Still, Bethea says the facts presented in these studies are important to think about when you're trying to make decisions about what kind of products you want to use, and where you want to spend your money.
“There are also a lot of chemicals in these products that we don't know what's in them,” she says. “Find places to advocate for changing some of our legal system and the economics around companies not having to tell you what's in the products.”
This part is important because the U.S. seems to be much more lax when it comes to protecting consumers of personal care products, compared to things like food and medicine.
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Why is it possible for the products that are sold to Americans to contain more than 1,000 different chemicals of concern, while these same chemicals are completely banned or heavily regulated in the European Union?

Adana Llanos, associate professor of epidemiologY, Columbia University
“Why is it possible for the products that are sold to Americans to contain more than 1,000 different chemicals of concern, while these same chemicals are completely banned or heavily regulated in the European Union?” Llanos asks. 
She also questions why a large proportion of the products that are specifically marketed to Black women and women of color are the most toxic on the market. “I think the answers to these questions should be concerning to all of us,” she says. “They concern me as a scientist, they concern me as a consumer, they concern me as a mom.”
These concerns led Llanos to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, an initiative set up to make beauty and personal care products safer, where she holds an advisory role helping to explain the science. 
The group regularly shares important resources that can help consumers make more informed decisions about the products they buy — including a database of non-toxic Black-owned beauty products that Black women can trust. 
Ultimately, Bethea says, making a decision on whether or not to use these products is no different than acting on any of the other health warnings we regularly receive about food, or working out. 
“We know that you can decrease your risk of certain cancers through healthier diet, exercise, early screening,” she says. “If this is something that concerns you, and that you know will affect your quality of life, then this is a place that you may [also] be able to reduce certain risks.” 

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