Chemical Hair Straighteners and Cancer: What You Need to Know

Published October 21, 2022
woman getting her hair done

If you are a woman who has used chemical hair straightening products, a new report issued by the National Institutes of Health may have caused you concern. The NIH released findings that link chemical hair straightening products to uterine cancer. These results might cause you to question your own use of hair care products and wonder what you should do next.

For now, experts suggest that there is no need to panic. More research is needed before we know for sure which ingredients may be problematic. But still, women of color and others who use these products are (reasonably) worried. We talked to both medical and hair care experts to get some answers to ease your mind.

How the Study Was Conducted

The study was the first of its kind to investigate associations between hair care products and uterine cancer. Published in The Journal of the National Cancer Institute, it included almost 34,000 women ranging in age from 35-74 with a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds. These women were part of a landmark research project called The Sister Study.

At the start of the study, researchers gave questionnaires to the women and asked them about their use of different hair care products over the past year. The women then reported how often they used different products including permanent, semipermanent, and temporary hair dyes, bleach, highlights, hair permanents or body waves, straighteners, relaxers, or pressing products. The researchers did not ask about specific brands.

Then for almost 11 years, participants (or next of kin for deceased participants) were contacted for health updates regarding new cancer diagnoses and other health-related changes. During that time, 378 uterine cancer cancer diagnoses were recorded.

The researchers found that those who had used chemical straightening products had higher rates of uterine cancer as compared to those who had never used them. They also found that those who used the products more than four times in the 12-month period had even higher rates of uterine cancer.

What Does This Mean for You?

While the results of this study offer a lot of answers, they have also raised a fountain of questions. People might wonder if they should see a doctor or get tested for cancer. Others might ask if they should stop using chemical straighteners. Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, M.D., from Yale School of Medicine says to hold off on panic and other medical experts agree.

"This epidemiolocal evidence shouldn't necessarily scare women to stop using straighteners altogether but provides evidence that they should be used with caution and under advisement," said Dr. Troy Gatcliffe, gynecologic oncologist with Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute. He adds that it's important to note that dyes and permanents and body waves did not have a correlation with uterine cancer.

For now, experts agree that the emphasis should be on getting more information. "Future research may identify the specific ingredients in hair straighteners that could pose a risk to people so that products can be made without these materials," Dr. Cohen said. Authors of the study also suggest that more research is needed.

"At this point, the decision on whether to use hair straighteners remains highly personal," says Dr. Cohen. "While some women may choose to stop because of these findings, the current information should not spark fear in the many women who value straightening their hair and wish to continue doing so."

Of course, women of color may be especially concerned when they see these results. Study data showed that more Black women (59%) used chemical straighteners than other groups. The study also found this group used these products more frequently than others and started their use at a younger age.

"The results did not differ by race, however the impact may be greater for Black women because of a higher prevalence of straightener use," said Dr. Gatcliffe.

Reaction in the Community

Uterine cancer is on the rise, especially among Black women. As the second-most deadly gynecological cancer, any product that might be contributing to its growth needs more study.

And racial disparity - especially when it comes to hair - presents another crucial reason to take a closer look at these results. A 2016 study found that Black women feel much more anxiety over their hair than white women, and feel pressured to straighten their hair, especially in professional settings.

While more people in the millennial generation and younger show different attitudes towards natural and textured hair, one in five Black women still report a social push to straighten their hair for work.

Understandably, this study has sparked strong reaction from women on a personal level and also in the Black community. You may feel worried - even panicked - over the fact that you have used chemical straighteners. Perhaps these reactions on social media mirror your feelings:

Are There Alternatives to Chemical Straighteners?

If you feel uneasy about your hair-care products, you do have some options. You can speak with your doctor about your concerns, and discuss your continued use of chemical straighteners. You can also ask your favorite stylist what they would recommend. Unfortunately, however, there aren't many straightening alternatives that work well and are known to be safe.

One of the study authors, Alexandra J. White, PhD, MSPH, explains that finding an alternative product can be tricky. "Straighteners have been found to include chemicals such as phthalates, parabens, cyclosiloxanes and metals and may release formaldehyde when heated," she says. She adds that a previous study found that labels are not always accurate in identifying what is in a product, which makes it challenging for the consumer to select a better product.

"Straightening treatments that don't contain formaldehyde are very hard to find," says Ebony J. Davis, a hairstylist with over 25 years of experience working with all hair textures. "And I have no idea how effective they'd be."

Davis has encouraged many of her clients over the years to shift to more natural hair, and clients have expressed concerns to her before about the negative effects of the chemicals applied to their hair and scalp. "What I would recommend," she said, "is finding products that help you achieve and maintain the style you want without chemicals."

However you feel about this news, remember that much more research still needs to be done. How you style your hair is your decision. If you use chemical straighteners, you may not want to stop. Changing up your look can be nerve-wracking, but it can also be empowering. Reach out to friends and family for support, and whatever you decide, you do you!

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Chemical Hair Straighteners and Cancer: What You Need to Know