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What Are the Hazards of Hair Straighteners?

Hair straighteners used mostly by African-American women contain hormone disrupting chemicals and are linked to uterine cancer.

Some African-American women regularly use hair-straightening products to achieve the look they like. Studies suggest, however, that these cosmetics are far from benign. What are the dangers of hair straighteners?

Uterine Cancer in Women Straightening Their Hair:

For years, researchers have wondered whether compounds in hair straighteners might have serious health consequences. (Keep reading to learn about some of those earlier studies.) Now we have results from the Sister Study (Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Oct. 17, 2022).

Researchers followed 33,947 women for about 11 years and diagnosed 378 cases of uterine cancer. People who had used a chemical hair straightener more than four times a year were 155 percent more likely to develop uterine cancer.

Since cosmetic companies promote these products primarily to women of color, their use may help explain why Black women are far more susceptible to rare and aggressive uterine cancers. The absolute risk in the study is still small—about 4 in 100 people who used hair straighteners compared to 1.64 in 100 for those who did not.

According to the authors,

“These findings are the first epidemiologic evidence of association between use of straightening products and uterine cancer. More research is warranted to replicate our findings in other settings and to identify specific chemicals driving this observed association.”

Hair Straighteners as Endocrine Disruptors:

Changes in hormones may be driving some of the risk. According to a previous study, women who use hair straighteners are being exposed to a toxic brew of endocrine disrupting chemicals (Helm et al, Environmental Research, Aug. 2018).

Scientists at the Silent Spring Institute tested 18 commercial products marketed to Black women, including hair relaxers, hot oil treatments, hair lotion, leave-in conditioner and anti-frizz/polish. The investigators found that all the products they tested contained potential endocrine disruptors or compounds that could exacerbate asthma.

Each one of these hair products contained at least four such compounds and some had as many as 30. More than half had chemicals that the European Union has banned. In addition, the state of California has flagged some of these compounds as dangerous.

Hair Straighteners for Children Are Risky:

Most disturbing, the two products marketed specifically for children contained the highest level of potentially dangerous chemicals. The researchers report that the labels did not disclose most of the compounds they discovered in their analyses. Exposure to such compounds might help to explain higher rates of asthma and early puberty among African-American women.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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