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#WCW: Calling Out Danger in Black Hair Relaxers

Posted on February 06, 2024

There's a lot of focus on black hair relaxers when it comes to understanding why women get fibroids. You see, uterine fibroids are just worse for black women than for any other group. African Americans develop these tumors three times as often as women of other races. Plus, their fibroids develop earlier--often in their twenties. In comparison, most white women don't get fibroids until their 30s.

But that's not all. With fibroids, black women are more likely to develop anemia with fibroids. They also have a higher risk for fibroids symptoms such as painful sex, severe pelvic pain and heavy periods.

Of course, those are scary statistics. But what's worse? We don't have concrete explanations for the disparities. What we do have, however, are theories. And one of those theories has to do with hair styling.

Could Black Hair Relaxers Impact Fibroids?

Hair products--can't live without 'em, right? Well, as it turns out, it also may not be wise to live with them. 

According to the Silent Spring Institute, many of the hair products marketed to black women are full of harmful chemicals. Ever wondered why they smell so bad? It's basically the poisons inside them. They're just revealing their nature.

Early research

In fact, there is some science to back up this claim. A 2017 Rutgers University study linked breast cancer and Black women's use of hair relaxers. A 2012 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology associated fibroid risk with the use of hair relaxers. Shirley McDonald of the Hair and Scalp Clinic says, "We now know that many hair products contain chemicals that are considered carcinogenic and/or hormone disrupters, leading to increased risk of medical issues such as fibroids (non-cancerous tumors that grow in the uterus, potentially damaging fertility and leading to a host of other complications). Trichologists see lots of conditions that are likely to be triggered by hair products, particularly central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia, a type of permanent hair loss to the crown area of the scalp."

New Developments

More recently, the National Institutes of Health spent eight years studying over 46,000 women of all races between the ages of 35–74. They were looking for links between chemical hair relaxers and breast cancer. And, they discovered African American women's breast cancer risk increased risk by 45%.

Breast cancer and other reproductive issues, including, fibroid development, are often connected. So this study suggests there are even more reasons to steer clear of black hair relaxers.

Plus, there's a new study from the American Journal of Epidemiology that further confirms this link. In their group of 23,000 menstruating Black American women, these participants displayed two to three times higher uterine fibroid incidences.  And, especially for the younger women, the researcher said that had a lot to do with exposure to the chemicals in black hair relaxers.

And it just gets worse from there. According to new findings from the Sister Study,  led by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) these products also increase uterine cancer risk. In fact, according to NIEHS head Alexandra White, who was lead author on the study, “We estimated that 1.64% of women who never used hair straighteners would go on to develop uterine cancer by the age of 70. But for frequent users, that risk goes up to 4.05%. This doubling rate is concerning."

Luckily, women aren't taking these findings sitting down. Instead, strong women like California resident Rugieyatu Bhonopha are calling out the manufacturers of these dangerous hair straightening products. Recently, our #WCW filed a lawsuit in the Northern of California alleging that chemicals found in various L’Oreal hair straightening contributed to her fibroids diagnosis. We hope she won't be the last. But as the brave first, we salute Ms. Bhonopha as our Woman Crush of the Week!

Even better? The FDA is now taking notice of these troubling developments. And they're preparing to take action. In fact, reports reveal that the FDA has proposed a ban--effective April of 2024--on any products containing formaldehyde due to their links to increased cancer risks and other health complications.

Chemicals in Black Women's Hair Products

Among the many dangerous substances in black women's hair products? Cyclosiloxanes, nonylphenols (also found in certain detergents), and phthalates (also found in plastics, they are the main reason people are working to ban plastics from food containers.) They may also contain formaldehyde, Di-2-ethylhexylphthalate (DEHP), parabens and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Besides their toxicity, each of these chemicals share a common bond--they have all been linked to hormone disruption as well as an increased risk of developing fibroids, asthma, infertility, and even cancer. That's a hefty price to pay for shinier hair.

Throwing Flames on the Fire

Being exposed to these chemicals is particularly troubling for black women, as they already have a higher risk of developing fibroids than other populations of women. Family history plays a part in that risk. And some people suggest that higher obesity rates may also be at issue.

But, more and more, certain hair products are also starting to shoulder the blame. According to the Silent Spring study mentioned earlier, 80% of Black hair products they tested contained "endocrine-disrupting and asthma-causing chemicals." Products examined included by the study included relaxers, hot oil treatments, leave-in conditioners, and anti-frizz balms. The scariest statistic? Hair relaxers that specifically targeted children had the highest levels of chemicals; many of those chemicals have already been banned in the EU.

New Evidence Links Relaxers to Female Cancers two friends talking together

Of course, fibroids are a major problem. But hair relaxers are linked to so many other health problems. In fact, that National Institutes of Health (NIH) study that followed over 46,000 women of all races between the ages of 35–74? It also found a link between chemical hair relaxers and breast cancer. Perhaps not surprisingly, African American women had a 45 percent increased risk of breast cancer as compared to women of other races.

Furthermore, Boston University's Black Women's Health study confirmed the increased risk of uterine cancer with hair relaxer use. After following 55,000 self-identified black women for 25 years, the researchers noted that women were 30% more likely to develop breast cancer if they used hair relaxers at least 7 times a year.

Today, real women are speaking out about becoming part of these statistics. In Georgia, Kiara Burroughs and three other black women filed law suits against L'Oreal and Strength of Nature, claiming their hair relaxers led to fibroid development and other serious health issues. And, while we await decisions in their court cases, there are steps you can take at home to protect yourself from complications.

Taking Action

While you can't do anything about your family history, being selective about the hair products you choose can certainly go a long way towards protecting your health. To help you do so, try checking what's in your products in the Skin Deep database. This should point out any concerning chemicals in your relaxers or other beauty products. Or download the ThinkDirty app, which highlights known health concerns linked to every ingredient included in your beauty products. Finally, check the Detox Me app for tips on buying safer beauty products. And for help learning the buzz words manufacturers use to hide dangerous ingredients.

To find out more about dangerous hair care products and your individual fibroid risk, please contact our Houston fibroid specialists office for a consultation with Dr. Fox or Dr. Hardee.

Sources: VoxNY Times parenting, Silent Spring Institute, NIH

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