Is It True That Hair Dye and Relaxer Cause Cancer?
Here’s how to interpret and navigate all the negative health news
Every day we are reminded of the sheer volume of things that, according to studies, negatively impact women of color. You name it, it hurts us. From alcohol and traffic accidents to toxic masculinity and certain nail polishes, between the reporting of personal anecdotes or outright studies, there is often a negative outcome. And now, a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study has found a correlation between chemical straighteners, hair dyes, and cancer.
What’s a woman to do?
The causal link between Black women, cancer, and chemical straighteners is something that has been discussed in the community for decades, but never proven. The NIH study suggested that usage of permanent hair dye and chemical relaxers leads to an increased risk of breast cancer — with risks even higher for Black women.
The study specifically stated this: “Using data from 46,709 women in the Sister Study, researchers at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of NIH, found that women who regularly used permanent hair dye in the year prior to enrolling in the study were 9% more likely than women who didn’t use hair dye to develop breast cancer. Among African American women, using permanent dyes every five to eight weeks or more was associated with a 60% increased risk of breast cancer as compared with an 8% increased risk for White women. The research team found little to no increase in breast cancer risk for semi-permanent or temporary dye use.”
These kinds of results are common for coverage of health issues, which, if they include Black women at all, almost always end with a “Black women are more likely to get, have or even die from” the disease noted in the study or story.
But dye and chemical straighteners aren’t the only things that can give a sister pause — and they aren’t only used by Black women. I saw a study last year, from the Centers for Disease Control, that suggested the high blood pressure medicine I had been on for years increased Black women’s incidence of stroke and heart attacks. I hadn’t had any problems with my medication, nor had my doctor ever discussed any risks. But once somebody tells you that you could have a stroke, because of something you are doing or taking, it gets your attention. I already had a regular follow up with my physician scheduled for that month, so I brought him my concerns and a copy of the study. Without much discussion or resistance, he switched me to another medication that is controlling my numbers. That’s not to say that another study won’t come along that says my new medication is bad for Black women. Until then, I’ll stick with what I have. The back and forth can be exhausting.
Fear of repercussions from life or environmental issues is a real thing, but the key is not to let that fear run your life.
I talked to a number of Black women who stopped using straighteners and dyes for any number of reasons — not all of it is medical in nature. I also know Black women who use straighteners and dyes and have not experienced any adverse problems. However, as with all things, when you do your research you find out what works best for you. Fear of repercussions from life or environmental issues is a real thing, but the key is not to let that fear run your life.
There are a number of studies that attempt to establish a link between products used by Black women and illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, preterm birth, infant mortality, and even asthma. This is a good thing. We need to know what’s going on with the products we use daily. But this health reporter is here to tell you that there simply isn’t enough basic research out there conducted on the products, medications, or even foods that impact our health and well-being. In addition to finding what’s bad, we should also find out what’s good. The truth is this, the majority of studies and research are not designed to specifically address what is good for us. Many of these studies sample a small number of women of color, seemingly as an afterthought. The NIH study gathered information on 46,709 women, and only 4,500 or 10% were Black.
Organizations like the Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI) call for more research on health impacts that are specific to Black women. “Whether it is cancer, reproductive health, heart disease, or mental health, there is not enough time, or money currently invested in researching our health,” says Linda Goler Blount, president and CEO of BWHI. “So often research institutions only talk about what is wrong with our health, versus what we are doing right, or what we can do to manage our health and wellness.”
To counter the fear mongering, BWHI has a report, IndexUS, that addresses what Black women do know in terms of protecting our health and wellness.
So with so many scary health stories out there, how do you know what to do? Don’t stop educating yourself but take everything with a grain of salt. And understand that there is a study for everything and that in many cases the studies are often old, or done with a small sampling of Black women. Even the NIH study co-author said more work needs to be done. The NIH reports this: “Co-author Dale Sandler, PhD, chief of the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch, cautioned that although there is some prior evidence to support the association with chemical straighteners, these results need to be replicated in other studies.”
Understand that there is a study for everything and that in many cases the studies are often old, or done with a small sampling of Black women.
Kyla Taylor, PhD, a researcher at NIEHS says, as a further example, “there is research that suggests that endocrine-disrupting chemicals can cause certain conditions.” (Endocrine disruptors are naturally and man-made substances that can be found in a number of items including plastic bottles, metal food cans, detergents, flame retardants, food, toys, cosmetics, and pesticides.) But she adds that the research doesn’t really explain the disparities between Black women and their White counterparts. And that lack of information is key.
Tips for managing your fears:
· If you see a health story or study that gives you some concern, do your homework.
· Keep a health notebook and note any health symptoms, or changes you may be experiencing.
· Get preventative screenings, including mammograms and routine physicals.
· Take your concerns to your doctor. And in many cases the physician may not have seen the study, so bring it with you.
· If you have concerns about your hair and scalp, talk to your dermatologist and your stylist. Note that a lot of factors come into play when considering why hair or skin is thinning or breaking or luxe and luscious. Sometimes it’s not the chemical, it’s the technique, overall health issues, stress levels, or even the environment.
· Get a plan. If you are concerned about a medication or medical treatment, talk to your doctor about alternatives.
· Sharing is caring. We spend more time talking about what we are watching on television than what is going on with our health. Flip the script.
· Don’t let the fickle headlines stress you out. Ask questions, seek answers, and make changes.