Chemical hair straighteners linked to higher risk of uterine cancer for Black women, study hows

Side-by-side of natural and relaxed hair. (NBC News / Getty Images)

“If you care about Black women’s health, you have to care about our hair,” said Professor Wendy Greene, a leading voice in the movement against Black hair discrimination.

 By Char Adams


(Image Credit:

Women using chemical hair-straightening products are at a higher risk of uterine cancer than women who reported not using them, a new study by the National Institutes of Health found. Researchers noted that Black women may have a higher risk because they are more likely to use such products more frequently.

A group of researchers with the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences looked at the hair care habits of more than 33,000 women and found that those who used chemical hair straightening products at least four times a year were more than twice as likely to develop uterine cancer.

Side-by-side of natural and relaxed hair. NBC News / Getty Images

Researchers said chemicals like parabens, phthalates and fragrances in hair care products disrupt the endocrine system, which helps regulate hormones. That could, in turn, raise the risk of uterine cancer, the most common cancer of the female reproductive system.

“Sixty percent of the participants who reported using straighteners were Black women. The bottom line is that the exposure burden appears to be higher among Black women,” said Chandra Jackson, a participant in the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Earl Stadtman Investigators program, who co-authored the study.

The study’s lead author, Alexandra White, the head of the agency’s Environment and Cancer Epidemiology group, said: “We see a doubling of risk for frequent users, and that’s a very alarming figure. For non-users, the absolute risk is about 1.64%, and then when you look at frequent users, the risk goes up to 4.05%. It’s a notable increase in risk.”

Chemical hair straighteners linked to uterine cancer, study finds

OCT. 18, 202200:34

There have been at least 65,000 new cases of uterine cancer in the U.S. this year, about 3% of all new cancer cases, according to the study.

Pressure to adhere to societal beauty standards that glorify and prioritize hair textures and styles associated with white people have led some Black people to rely on harmful hair care products like chemical relaxers to look the part, said Wendy Greene, a law professor at Drexel Kline School of Law who studies Black hair discrimination. She calls the pressure the “straight hair mandate,” noting that it can affect Black people’s work, social and educational lives. Hair care products targeted toward Black women seeking to fit such beauty standards are often full of endocrine-disrupting and asthma-associated chemicals, many of which aren’t listed on product labels, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Environmental Research.

“By virtue of conforming, we often use toxic chemicals to straighten our hair or use extreme heat styling to maintain straightened hair,” Greene said, adding that the pressure to do so stems from negative associations with Black people’s hair and the “privileging of straight hair styles because of their association with whiteness.”


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