Relaxed but deadly: The cancer beneath hair straighteners


A woman having a phone conversation as her hair is blow-dryed in a salon. [Getty Images]

For a long time following the advent of hair relaxers, frizzy or kinky hair was frowned upon. While some women are currently embracing kinky hair as part of their identity, relaxed hair is still one of the symbols of womanhood.

This is steeped in the 50s and 60s when African-American women relaxed their hair as part of the counterculture that emerged in the aftermath of World War II in defiance of the then-conventional norms.

The rise of rock and roll and soul music groups that featured both men and women with straightened hair acted as a catalyst for this craze. Currently, hair straighteners are part of the independent and dynamic beauty sector.

But did you know that frequent use of chemicals in hair straighteners and relaxers is associated with uterine and brain cancers and fibroids?

These products contain compounds that are serious endocrine or hormonal disruptors. They tend to pose potent health risks when one is exposed to them for a long time. 

Straighteners and relaxers have been found to release a carcinogenic gas called formaldehyde. This is a colourless but rancid chemical that is also used in the industrial production of pressed wood products.

Hair-relaxing chemicals also contain endocrine disruptors like Phthalates parabens and heavy metals that perfectly predispose one to various forms of cancer.

IRP researchers led by Stadtman Investigator Alexandra J. White, PhD, MSPH found that women who frequently used hair straighteners or relaxers more than four times in the previous year were more than twice as likely to develop uterine cancer compared to those who avoided the products.

The scientists estimated that 1.6 per cent of women who never used hair straighteners would go on to develop uterine cancer by the age of 70. However, that risk goes up to 4 per cent for frequent users. But dyes and permanents/body waves among other products were not associated with such a higher risk of the disease.

While the risk was similar in white women, black women were much more likely to use hair straighteners and relaxers in their lives compared to Caucasians.

Research by Boston University’s Black Women’s Health Study (BWHS) released in 2023 has also shown a similar correlation.

However, this does not exempt dyes and permanents from blame. Research also discovered that dyes and body weaves contained chemicals that were greatly associated with a huge spike in cases of other forms of cancer especially cancer of the brain among black women. This contrasts with only 15 per cent of cases reported in the same demography.  The epidemiologic evidence now exists to correlate straighteners or relaxers and the likelihood of one developing uterine and brain cancer and fibroids among the black women community. Similar findings were obtained from black women who had been using manufactured wigs that contained carcinogenic chemicals. 

The findings were even more stark than when it was noted that Black women are three times more likely to develop uterine fibroids and uterine cancer compared to women from other races. 

The existing question is, why the disproportionate numbers of black women and how grim is the situation?

Over 80 per cent of uterine cancers are reported in black women aged over 50 compared to 30-50 per cent of cases reported in women from other races.

The research concludes that beauty products are a major contributing factor in the soaring of these cancers. 

It is well documented that Phthalates that are often used in the manufacture of plastic cause endocrine disruption thus harmful to the human body. They interfere with the regular activity of the endocrine system by causing hormonal homeostasis imbalance.

Similarly, the research reported fibroids cases in black women occurred earlier than in women from other races -- some as early as in their 20s -- for those constantly exposed to these cosmetic products. This prompted the black community to sue the companies involved in manufacturing the products in question in Georgia, United States. Activist Kiara Burroughs was the first the file a case in September 2023, after undergoing an operation to remove uterine fibroids. 

China which manufactures and exports most of the said products has banned them. So is Singapore.

To reduce the cases and long-term exposure to these products, the government is obliged to come up with legislation to regulate if not ban some of them. So, when prominent female personalities, including former and current Kenyan First Ladies, keep it natural, maybe it is a moment to introspectively them as women in the know about what works well for them. 

[Prof Ben Fadhili Jilo is a Fellow and a Professor of Neural Stem Cell, UK . Additional information by Alex Kiarie, Standard Group]

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