Use of Straighteners & Other Hair Products and Incident Uterine Cancer

Use of Straighteners & Other Hair Products and Incident Uterine Cancer

By Linda Nwoke, A CAW Exclusive

The rate and number of deaths from Uterine cancer have considerably increased within the past twenty years. As of 2022, there are over 65,000 new cases and over 11,000 deaths from this form of cancer. Uterine cancer is now deemed one of the most common gynecological cancers. Medical explanations associate this illness as a product of two hormonal activities in women. Specifically, the hormonal imbalance and exposure to excess progesterone and estrogen. Experts propose that chemicals cause the risk of developing uterine cancer in products that disrupt the endocrine, which alters hormonal actions.

Studies on Hair Straightening Products and Cancer
In a recent study, women who frequently use hair straightening products were more likely to develop uterine cancer than others who did not. The frequency of use was defined as using hair straighteners more than four times in the last year.

The studies conducted by Che Jung Chang et al. (2022) were published in the National Cancer Institute Journal. Their findings claim that using certain hair products containing specific chemicals was related to uterine cancer.

These substances, discovered to be carcinogenic, have been found in straighteners and dyes used in hair products, thereby supporting the connection between hair product use and cancer development. In another study in 2019, researchers found a link between the use of hair relaxers and permanent hair dye to a higher risk of breast cancer. And the chances were more than six times higher for Black women.

Furthermore, adolescents that used hair relaxers with the chemicals had a higher rate of developing breast cancer, while adult women had a higher rate of developing ovarian cancer.

Usage of Hair Products in the USA
In the United States, income from the hair care segment in 2022 is over US$ 12 billion, and more than half of women use hair products like permanent hair dyes. The study by Che Jung-Chang et al. investigated the influence of hair product use on uterine cancer. They focused on the age-related hazard of uterine cancer among racially and ethnically diverse groups in the United States.

Interestingly, the researchers observed a higher uterine cancer rate among women who frequently used hair straighteners. On the other hand, they observed almost non-existent cases of uterine cancer among those that used other hair products like dyes, bleach, highlights, and hair permanents. The findings support existing studies that linked hair straighteners to an increased risk of other female hormone-related cancers. As expected, the report increased anxiety over chemical exposure through hair straighteners more than other personal care products.

How It Works
During the processing of natural hair, straighteners used may cause scalp burns and injuries, which hastens the possible absorption of the chemicals through the scalp. Generally, the scalp absorbs chemicals more than other skin surfaces like the palm, forearm, and abdomen.

In another category of hair product users, using flat irons or blow dryers during straightening treatments potentially release or break down chemicals while applying heat to the products. This process potentially exposes users to the absorption of higher hazardous chemicals.

Risk Factors for Users of Hair Straighteners
Studies have shown over time that there is a link between physical activity, decreased sex steroid hormones, and less chronic inflammation. Researchers observed a strong relationship between women with low physical activity and uterine cancer compared with women with a high level of physical activity. However, additional studies are required to understand the exact interplay between physical activity, hair product use, and uterine cancer.

Presently, there are no apparent differences in the threat ratio between ethnic and racial groups. However, many African American and Black women’s health can be adversely affected by straightener usage because of early use from a young age, the frequency of usage, and the application of harsher chemical formulations than other ethnicities or races.

The Aftermath of the Hair Product Findings
In a recent development, NBC News reports that four Black women filed federal lawsuits against big brands like L’Oréal and other companies. Their complainants claim that the companies’ hair products contained chemicals that made them develop uterine cancer or, in some cases, experience other severe health effects.

The lawsuit was filed after the National Institutes of Health study was released. Women in the research reported frequently using hair straightening products, which caused them to develop uterine cancer compared to those who did not. Three women in the lawsuit had reportedly undergone medical procedures to remove their wombs or uterus.

One of the complainants had started relaxing her hair as a pre-teen and only stopped when she was in her early 40s, more than two decades later. Thus far, the plaintiff has undergone six rounds of chemotherapy for uterine cancer, remitted for a brief period, and then developed cancer in her abdomen and liver.

Another plaintiff shares that the hair straighteners she used in her teenage years and early adulthood, between (1980-2015), caused her to develop both uterine and breast cancer. The breast cancer manifested in her forties, which she treated with chemotherapy, and then she had a double mastectomy two years later to remove her breasts surgically. Last year, in 2021, she developed uterine cancer and underwent a hysterectomy, six months of chemotherapy, and radiation.

One common theme among all the women was the unawareness that hair relaxers could predispose them to an increased risk of cancer. They claim that nothing on the products’ packaging indicated that the products could cause them to develop fibroids, breast, or uterine cancer.

Existing studies have strongly shown a possibility that the chemicals like parabens, phthalates, and other metals may release formaldehyde when heated.

The Environmental Protection Agency of the United States classified the chemical substance formaldehyde as a potential cancer-causing agent when exposure to it is high and prolonged such as constant use of hair relaxers and application of heat.

Furthermore, studies show that more than 1.5% of women who never used relaxers would likely develop uterine cancer later in life by age 70. In comparison, regular users have more than 4% increased risks that can manifest at an earlier age.

Reasons Women Use Hair Straighteners or Relaxers
The victims cited societal pressure as one of the factors that caused them to use chemical hair straighteners. They gave explanations like the need to conform to work standards, the need to wear straight hair, and the need to meet beauty standards. Experts say other factors like the need to express themselves meet Eurocentric beauty standards and a desire for flexibility in changing hairstyles.

Research also indicates that some Black and Latina women felt socially pressured to wear a hairstyle that reduces discrimination and subtle aggression in workplaces. According to a study by Michigan State University (2020), over 70% of Black women revealed they altered their natural hair to meet the expectations of an economically and socially successful person.

Need for More Research
Additional investigations to confirm the findings in different populations are needed. Primarily among African American and Black women because of the regular practice of straightener use. as well as to evaluate the potential contribution of hair products to health disparities in uterine cancer.

There is also a need for additional studies to identify the chemical ingredients that might increase the rates. Experts insist that the findings must be addressed due to the widespread use of hair products and the rising cases of uterine cancer. Public health needs to reduce the incidence of uterine cancer.

The civil rights lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit insist that one of the objectives of the case is to raise awareness of the product’s dangers. Secondly, they want them removed from store shelves to protect innocent lives.

They also assert that informing Black and brown parents to discontinue trying to conform to European-driven beauty standards is essential. And to desist from using chemicals to straighten their hair at the expense of destroying their uterus and the chance of having babies, not to mention the adverse health effect.

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