The Dangerous Facts About Hair Relaxers

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This year, a huge study on over 30,000 women who have used chemical hair relaxers determined that those who received the treatment 4 times or more a year were twice as likely to develop uterine cancer than those who do not.

The Sister Study, originally a product of the US Department of Health and Human Services’ attempts to find causes of breast cancer, studied around 34,000 women over the course of ten years. Those who used chemical relaxers frequently had a risk factor of about 4% for developing uterine cancer, a relatively rare kind of cancer, as opposed to the normal risk of about 1.6%.

This is alarming news, particularly for black women, who are much more common to receive chemical relaxer treatments. Additionally, the black community already has high rate of cancer deaths due to health disparities as well as racism and bias in healthcare. Deaths from uterine cancer are the highest in black women, according to the National Cancer Institute’s data.

Epidemiologist for the National Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences and author of the study, Alexandra White, MD, explains that more research is needed to know for sure how dangerous relaxers are. “This was the first epidemiologic evidence of an association between hair straighteners/relaxers and uterine cancer risk,” says Dr. White. “More studies are needed to confirm these findings, especially in racially and ethnically diverse populations given that hair-product use varies notably among women of different race and ethnicities.”

Not Much Has Changed About Relaxers

Chemical hair relaxers have their origins in the early 1900s, when Garrett Morgan, son of a freed slave, noticed that a chemical he was using on sewing needles in his factory also straightened hair. After testing it on a neighbor’s dog and then himself, Morgan went on to found his own line of hair-straightening products.

Interestingly, Morgan would go on to create the traffic light and the gas mask just a few years later.

During this early period, relaxers became well known for their potential to cause hair damage and scalp burns. Because relaxers are chemically straightening the tightly curled hair, it can cause the hair itself to become brittle and even break off.

According to founder and CEO of Swivel Beauty, an app that helps black women find expert hair care, Jihan Thompson, relaxers have changed very little since these early days. “I stopped getting relaxers about seven years ago, but I would say very little, if anything, has changed about the experience,” Thompson says. “There unfortunately hasn’t been much innovation in this space yet. Because of the chemicals used to alter the hair’s texture, relaxers can still leave painful burns on the scalp and cause irritation depending on how long they’re left on and, especially, if applied incorrectly.”

Founder and CEO of Carra, an AI-driven digital hair health platform for women with textured hair, Winnie Awa explains that consumers have been operating without any guidance for a long time. “Part of the reason why I got involved in hair care is because I had no idea what I should really be doing or using,” Awa says. “Products are not enough. They need guidance. They need professionals and people who understand what these products do to your hair at a scientific level. That’s why our hair coaches tackle myths directly to discern what people are using and what works.”

Relaxers can be performed by a stylist in a salon, at a barbershop, or at home. But you’re a lot less likely to experience damage and painful burns in the hands of a professional.

Celebrity hairstylist and founder of Verve Artists, Giannandrea, confirmed that when he used relaxers, he never had issues. “I had a great experience with hair relaxers, and I think that it’s a great tool for altering textures when used in a proper and safe way,” Giannandrea says. “I suggest doing it in salon with a haircare professional who’s capable with this chemical treatment.”

Hair Discrimination and Relaxers

It’s important to note that the popularity of chemical relaxer treatments within the black community has a lot to do with racism. U.S. beauty standards have historically been white, and that includes the texture of hair.

“Hair discrimination against black women has largely centered on what hairstyles are deemed ‘beautiful’ or ‘professional,’ Thompson explains. “The cultural pressure to meet what’s considered a white, Eurocentric standard of beauty—one that is defined by straight hair—has led to hair discrimination among black women who choose to wear their hair exactly as it grows out of their heads (ie, natural).”

Relaxers signified a more permanent way to maintain that beauty standard.

“When relaxers skyrocketed in popularity in the 80s and 90s, it allowed women to maintain straight styles with more ease and without the reliance on hot combs,” Thompson says.

“A lot of us grew up chemically straightening our hair because that was the expectation,” Awa says. “And now we know there is actually a health cost to that.”

Additionally, brands that make relaxers may find it difficult to build trust with consumers. This is especially true in the wake of recent calls for L’Oreal to stop producing hair relaxers, and as lawsuits have launched following the uterine cancer study’s publication.

“That presents quiet the challenge for the global brands that are trying to come out with textured hair lines when the products they made before actually made you sick,” Awa explains. “The trust is at an all-time low.”

The Current State of Relaxers

These days, Giannandrea sees them as particularly useful for people who may have more than one hair texture. “The creative aspects are infinite. You can apply this tech to any specific way to help clients solve problems, especially when you have a diversity in textures in your hair,” Giannandrea explains. “Sometimes the hair in the back of the head above the neck has a tendency to be more unruly or much curlier than the rest. When applied just in this area, it can equalize just that area and not the whole head.”

Additionally, while the natural hair movement has continued to gain ground in the cosmetic industry, there is still pressure on black women to conform to white beauty standards.

“Once we knew that chemical straighteners are terrible, there was a really big shift into the natural hair-care movement,” Awa says. “And I think the natural hair-care movement became the clean beauty movement as it evolved.”

According to a CROWN research study on over 1,000 black women, over 66% of them said they changed their hair for job interviews. 25% of black women surveyed ages 25-34 report being sent home from work for their hair.

Thompson explains that this pressure means that relaxers, though not necessarily safe, are still popular. “At Swivel, we actually did a survey of 300 of our users and found that more than 3 in 5 of the respondents said they straightened or wore a straight style (like a weave or wig) for a job interview,” Thompson says. “So, while fewer black women are getting relaxers these days, the cultural discrimination that helped make them popular still persists.”

“I don’t think [relaxers] have decreased in popularity,” Giannandrea says. That said, he does think that technology will move us away from harsher chemicals. “The current modern times in technological hair care are advancing away from the chemical age and on to newer and better performing, gentler choices for the hair as well.”

The Lack of FDA Regulation Is Ongoing

You may know that earlier this year, the FDA passed its first major reform since the agency’s inception. This reform gives the FDA the kind of regulatory power it needs to ban ingredients, perform recalls, and require full ingredient lists from cosmetic companies. Given that the EU bans over a thousand chemicals to our paltry 11, this reform is a big step forward.

The only problem is that hair relaxers don’t really get included in this.

Despite being well known for their cocktail of skin-burning, potentially cancer-causing chemicals, hair relaxers still won’t need to publicly disclose any ingredients other than “allergens.” Additionally, the loose wording around substantiating the safety of ingredients leaves plenty of room for corporate-funded studies packed with conflicts of interest to be qualifying.

The good news is that the FDA finally has the power to institute its own recalls, rather than asking companies to voluntarily remove dangerous products. That means that if and when more research determines hair relaxers are carcinogenic, the federal government can actually take them off the shelves. Whether or not that will happen any time soon remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the current research suggests a risk which consumers need to be aware of.

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