I got my last relaxer when I was 25.
The reasons were many: The every six-to-eight-week ritual cost way too much money. I decided to start running 5Ks and permed hair would not stay straight if I ran in humidity every day. And the creamy chemicals didn’t just make my own hair brittle, my scalp often burned to the flesh. Intuitively I knew nothing good could come from so much pain.
Yet as unpleasant as the process was, I didn’t know that relaxing my tightly-coiled hair once a month could perhaps increase my chances of breast cancer.
Scientists at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences released a study Wednesday reporting that women who use chemical hair straighteners every five to eight weeks were about 31% more likely to develop breast cancer than those who don’t. While the connection between straightening hair and breast cancer were similar among black and white women, black women, the study found, are more likely to straighten their hair (you don’t say?). This put them at a higher risk.
If that doesn’t throw a wrench in your vanity, this will: Dyeing your hair may put you at an even greater risk.
Black women who use permanent dyes every five to eight weeks or more were associated with a 60% increased risk of breast cancer compared with an 8% increased risk for white women, the report found. (The research found little to no increase in breast cancer risk for semipermanent or temporary dye use.)
“These findings are significant," said Dale Sandler, an NIEHS researcher and one of the study’s authors. “The relative risk of developing breast cancer if you are a black women who uses hair dye is relatively large compared to that of nonusers.” But, Sandler added, the absolute number of new cases of breast cancer due to hair dye is still small.
Interestingly, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond on Thursday introduced the CROWN Act — which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural hair — in the House with Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Marcia Fudge, and Barbara Lee. Sen. Cory Booker unveiled the CROWN Act in the Senate as well.
The CROWN Act is meant to protect from discrimination workers and students who wear their hair in braids, locks, twists, and Afros. While anybody might be able to wear these styles, its goal is to protect black people. Earlier this year, the CROWN Act became law in California and New York. It is pending in the New Jersey and Florida state legislatures, but if passed in Congress, the CROWN Act would become national law.
Now it looks as if the CROWN Act wouldn’t just be protecting my culture, or saving me from a beauty standard that doesn’t suit me. It could perhaps save my life.
So much for the it’s-only-hair theory.
But while the research is a move in the right direction, it is still somewhat inconclusive.
NIEHS used data from 46,709 women participating in its Sister Study, which has been tracking women who, when the research began eight years ago, were breast cancer-free but whose sisters had been previously diagnosed with breast cancer.
The Sister Study looks at environmental and health factors that might contribute to the disease, and is among the first to call attention to the negative impact women’s everyday beauty regimens can have on their health.
Yet only 4,500 of the participants were black women, a very small sample. “Participation in the study is voluntary, and most of our volunteers are white," Sandler said in a way that lets me know science needs more black volunteers.
There is another tangle.
If black women who color or straighten their hair are more at risk for getting breast cancer, what about those of us who color and straighten our hair? Relaxers not only alter the texture of our hair, they make the scalp more porous. Perhaps the one-two punch of getting a relaxer and color makes a black woman’s body more susceptible to any carcinogens that might be in hair color?
“We were not able to explicitly say what is the risk to women who do both,” Sandler said. “But because chemical straightener use is so much more common among black women, it is potentially a more important contributor to breast cancer risk in black women.”
Sandler, however, did say products marketed to black women often contain harsher chemicals than those white women use. “Many black women have hair that’s coarser. The color adheres to hair follicles differently. It’s possible the absorption is different. We need a lot more research to understand this.”
Luckily, black women aren’t waiting for research to tell us that products we use in our hair can potentially be deadly. According to a study released in August by the global marketing intelligence agency Mintel’s Black Haircare, “relaxers are fading into obscurity.”
Nearly eight in 10 black consumers, Mintel’s report said, have worn their hair in its natural state in the last three years. The report also pointed to an uptick in black women using natural products like coconut oil, apple cider vinegar, and honey as part of their hair care regimen and said brands should “consider integrating natural ingredients beyond moisturizers into formulated products.”
Still, the report said, when it comes to hair color, use among black women will likely remain constant through 2024.
Does this mean that our need to stay young-looking is trumping the desire for straight hair among black women?
Yes, said Syreeta Scott, owner of Duafe, a North Philadelphia hair-care salon that doesn’t use chemical straighteners but does color hair. “It’s hard for women, especially those of us who measure our beauty in not being gray," Scott said.