Hair Straightening Products Increase Cancer Risk

A young black girl has her hair knotted before being styled.

A years-long study reveals that certain chemicals in hair straightening products increase a user’s chances of developing uterine cancer – especially for black women. A recent lawsuit filed in the Northern District of Illinois seeks to provide remedy to the negative health effects that hair straightening products may have on unsuspecting women.

The Sister Study

The Sister Study is a research program led by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). Initially intended to identify risk factors for other health conditions such as breast cancer, the Sister Study researchers found an alarming pattern that started to arise in its 11-year long process. The study included over 33,000 women living in the US between the ages of 35-74, and during this 11-year period 378 of those women were diagnosed with uterine cancer.

Uterine cancer is not the most common form of cancer, accounting for about 3% of all new cancer cases to arise in a given year, but it is the most common form of cancer to attack the female reproductive system. Further studies show that rates of uterine cancer have been on the rise in the United States and have disproportionally affected Black women.

Effects on Black Women

Why does this seem to have a stronger effect on black women or people of color? Biologically, cancer causing agents such as parabens, bisphenol A, formaldehyde, and other metals that are found in hair straightening products do not have adverse reactions to users based on race. They are, however, proving to be a greater risk for people who frequently use hair straightening products. Women who do not use hair straightening products have an estimated 1.64% chance of developing uterine cancer by a late age, but women who frequently use these products (using them at least four times a year) see their odds of developing uterine cancer almost triple at 4.05%.

The disproportionate effect of uterine cancer towards black women is therefore a societal predicament. A young woman revealed that she began using hair straightening products at the age of nine. While her desire to have socially acceptable (straight) hair was affirmed at her school, multiple applications of hair straightener or relaxers caused the girl to have a burning scalp and chemical fatigue; for a long time though, she believed beauty meant pain. It did not occur to her until after a decade of studies were conducted that these chemicals in her hair relaxers could negatively affect her physical health.

Black women growing up in America can often be criticized for the bigness of their hair, and many of these women (often girls when they begin their hair-straightening journey) believe that they can only exist in society if they meet the standards in place. Some hair-care companies take advantage of this notion, advertising their relaxers or hair straightening products specifically to a black demographic or to people of color. And while no named hair products were included in the study, the cancer-contributing chemicals (parabens, bisphenol A, formaldehyde) were similar throughout.

a black woman leans against her bed as she cries. She rests her head on her fingers.

What to do next?

Cancer is not something to be played around with, and if companies had knowledge of the effects that hair straightening chemicals and relaxers could inflict on a person, it should be very telling of their values. The risk of cancer for the sake of profit should not be at the expense of a targeted community.

There is still plenty of research to be done, but the study conducted by the NIEHS is consistent with other studies done on the same types of relaxers and hair straightening products. Even still, it is not right that hair care companies can neglectfully advertise damaging products to a community of consumers. If you

believe you have been affected or are at risk of being affected by this issue, contact Shub Law today and tell us your story!




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