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Black women may be at a higher risk of developing uterine cancer from certain hair straightening products and chemical relaxers, a new study has found.

Researchers from the Journal of the National Institutes of Health found that women who frequently used hair straightening products were four times more likely to develop uterine cancer compared to those who did not use straightening products. What the research did not address is why the use of such products has been so prevalent among Black women.

Some participants developed cancer after prolonged use of hair straightening products

The data, which was collected over an 11-year time frame, showed that some study participants developed cancer after prolonged use of hair straightening products.

“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%,” said Alexandra White, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Environment and Cancer Epidemiology group and a lead author behind the groundbreaking study. “This doubling rate is concerning. However, it is important to put this information into context – uterine cancer is a relatively rare type of cancer.”

Uterine cancer is on the rise among Black women

The new study, which was published Monday, pulled data from nearly 34,000 female participants, ages 35 to 74, who completed a survey about their use of certain relaxers, perms and straighteners. Researchers also tracked the incidence of cancer diagnoses within the study group. Approximately 60% of the participants who reported using straighteners were self-identified Black women, the study noted.

While uterine cancer only accounts for 3% of all new cancer cases, the devastating disease appears to be on the rise among Black women.

Why do some Black women straighten their hair?

Several factors may be attributed to the rising health disparity. Black women often feel pressure to augment or straighten their natural hair because of dominant Euro-centric beauty standards. Straight hair is often seen in big brand media campaigns and advertisements that prompt many women of color to idealize mainstream conventional ideas of beauty.

As we’ve seen over the years, some Black women experience microaggressions or are even fired for wearing their natural tresses in the workplace. Hair straightening products may allow some women to maintain a sense of economic security and fit in by using them. In addition, sometimes maintaining natural hair can be time consuming and cumbersome. Some women have opted to straightening their hair for ease and less maintenance.

Several hair straightening chemicals contain hormone disrupters like parabens, bisphenol A, metals and formaldehyde — all of which could be contributing to the increased uterine cancer risk being observed. Researchers also believe that chemical exposure from hair products could be dangerous because of their increased absorption through the scalp, which may be “exacerbated by burns and lesions caused by straighteners,” the study found.

“The bottom line is that the exposure burden appears higher among Black women,” Chandra Jackson, an author of the study and researcher at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences told CNN. 

“Based off of the body of the literature in this area, we know that hair products marketed directly to Black children and women have been shown to contain multiple chemicals associated with disrupting hormones, and these products marketed to Black women have also been shown to have harsher chemical formulations,” she said.

“On top of that, we know that Black women tend to use multiple products simultaneously, which could contribute to Black women on average having higher concentrations of these hormone-disrupting chemicals in their system.”


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