Chemical hair straighteners may cause uterine cancer in Black women

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I begged my mom for two things one Christmas season when I was nine years old: a Barbie doll house and a “perm” — the colloquial term we used for relaxers. We did not understand then that there was a major difference between the two.

Though hesitant at first, as a mom with four daughters — I’m the youngest — she knew my pleading wouldn’t stop until my hair looked like one of the girls on the ‘Just For Me’ box.

I found out only recently that those models didn’t actually have the relaxed hair themselves.

Before that Christmas break was over, what once was a giant afro was bone-straight and down the length of my back like I’d never seen it before.

My hair is thick and coarse, so at the time, I assumed the chemical straightening cream had to stay in my hair for a longer length of time to really get the kinks and curls straighter.

So when my mom asked if my scalp was burning — yes, it was! — I pushed through and held out just a little bit longer to make sure it would really work.

Even at that young age, I thought beauty was pain and that having straight hair was more socially acceptable — though no one in my family ever told me that.

That belief was reaffirmed for me that Monday when I walked into school and people responded well to the length and straightness of my hair.

I got relaxers pretty regularly for the next six or seven years after that.

My mom, myself, our friends and family had never given any thought to how the application of these chemicals on our hair and scalp might be affecting our physical health.

And we wouldn’t know until over a decade after my first relaxer and over a century after chemical straightening was introduced to the Black community in the early 1900s.

A link between chemical hair straighteners and uterine cancer in Black women

On Oct. 17, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) published findings of the Sister Study, including data from over 33,000 women who were tracked for nearly 11 years.

The goal was to pinpoint risk factors for breast cancer and other health conditions, and researchers discovered something alarming.

Within that time frame, 378 women were diagnosed with uterine cancer, and those who used hair straighteners over 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.”

Around 60% of the women who reported using hair straightening products self-identified as Black, the press release states.

“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,” said Che-Jung Chang, an author on the study and a research fellow in the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch in the press release.

Though the study didn’t include specific brands, there are certain chemicals that may be contributing to the increased uterine cancer risk including:

  • Parabens
  • Bisphenol A
  • Metals
  • Formaldehyde

For other chemical-based hair products like highlights, bleach, hair dyes and perms, researchers didn’t find associations with uterine cancer.

Thankfully, women in my life like my older sister and best friend, who defied the ‘straight hair’ standard, showed me what embracing my natural hair could look like.

I began my natural hair journey at 16, and I haven’t relaxed my hair since.

Still, I wonder what these findings will mean for me, my loved ones and other Black women in the future.

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