Women who use hair straightening chemicals are at higher risk of cervical cancer than women who said they don’t use them, a new study from the National Institutes of Health has found.
The researchers noted that black women may be at greater risk because they use these products more often.
A group of researchers from the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences studied the hair care habits of more than 33,000 women and found that those who used hair straightening chemicals at least four times a year were twice as likely to develop cervical cancer.
Researchers said chemicals like parabens, phthalates and fragrances in hair care products disrupt the endocrine system, which helps regulate hormones. This, in turn, could increase the risk of uterine cancer, the most common cancer of the female reproductive system.
“Sixty percent of participants who reported using straightening irons were black women. The bottom line is that exposure levels appear to be higher in black women,” said Chandra Jackson, a co-author on the study’s Earl Stadtman Investigators program at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
The study’s lead author, Alexandra White, head of the agency’s cancer and environmental epidemiology group, said: “We’re seeing a doubling of risk for frequent users, and that’s a very alarming number.
For non-users, the absolute risk is around 1.64%, and when you look at frequent users, the risk increases to 4.05%. It’s a noticeable increase in risk.”
According to the study, there were at least 65,000 new cases of cervical cancer in the US this year, about 3% of all new cancer cases.
Pressure to conform to society’s beauty standards that glamorize and prioritize hair textures and styles associated with white people has led some black people to rely on harmful hair products like chemical relaxers to look their best, said Wendy Greene, a professor of rights at Drexel Kline.
She calls the pressure the “straight hair mandate”, noting that it can affect black people’s work, social and educational lives.
Hair products aimed at black women looking to meet these beauty standards are often full of endocrine disruptors and asthma-related chemicals, many of which are not listed on product labels, according to a 2018 study published in Environmental Research journal.