Mirtha Aguilar played with T-shirts on her head as a child to pretend she had long, straight hair. Later, while trying to leave her curls in the past, the Fort Myers, Floridaresident said she tried different products and techniques that promised to meet the beauty standards she saw on television.
However, she changed her mind about what seemed to be working perfectly when she noticed her hair becoming dry, dandruff flaking off her scalp, and other more worrying problems.
“I went to the doctor when I started having tachycardias, sweaty hands and nervousness,” says Aguilar, 52, describing his rapid heartbeat and other problems.
Aguilar discovered she had a problem with a hormone related to her thyroid. The diagnosis, she says, served as a wake-up call and led her to move away from products she suspected had something to do with it.
Among other lifestyle changes, “I stopped using chemical straighteners,” she says.
Aguilar’s health improved as she learned to love her naturally curly hair, and she has ruled out returning to straightening products. Her decision to abandon them aligns with research in recent years showing that these cosmetic products are associated with poor health outcomes for women, including hormone-related cancers. The data helped drive a possible federal ban related to these products, which are often aimed at women of color who face societal pressures that may push them to “relax” their natural hair.
Although ingredients and formulations can change over time – and are not clearly reflected on product labels – chemical straighteners have been found to contain substances such as metals, parabens and formaldehyde that could be causing poor results. A recent study by researchers from the National Institutes of Health and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that women who had used a chemical straightener in the year before enrolling in the study had an 18% higher risk of breast cancer.
And although research on a link between breast cancer and hair straighteners was mixedthe NIH study – based on participants who had a sister with breast cancer – also found the risk increased to 31% higher among women who used a straightener at least every five to eight weeks. Breast cancer risk was similar for black and white women, but hair straightener use was much more common among black women.
Likewise, a study published in 2021 in the journal Carcinogenesis found an association between frequent use – that is, more than four times a year – of straighteners, relaxers or “pressing” products and an increased risk of breast cancer. ‘ovary. And a study published last year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute linked these hair routines and Uterus cancer: Women who frequently used straightening products in the previous year faced an estimated risk of uterine cancer that was more than twice that of women. the risk for those who had not used them.
Notably, research also showed that rates of aggressive subtypes of the disease have recently increased among American women, with black women particularly affected.
“Several chemicals often identified as constituents of hair straighteners may contribute to the increased rates of uterine cancer observed here,” wrote the authors of the study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, referring to parabens and formaldehyde, among others.
Dr. Jordan Gellerendocrinologist with a private practice based in Los Angelesclaims that many products – including straighteners and skin care products, as well as plastics and non-stick cookware – may contain endocrine disrupting chemicals. These chemicals can imitate, block or interfere with hormones in the body. And even though it’s considered a barrier, the skin allows many substances to pass through, explains Geller.
“Even at low doses, endocrine disruptors accumulate over many years and are effectively stored in the layers of fat under our skin and deep within our bodies,” he says.
Over time, this chemical deposit escapes. Geller says such substances have led to “many cases in which patients have obvious symptoms of a hormonal imbalance, but surprisingly have normal hormone levels when we test their blood and urine.”
For example, a person with normal levels of true estrogen may also have high levels of chemicals that act like estrogen in their body, Geller explains, which can cause breast tenderness or heavy periods in women. He also notes that the thyroid gland, which produces hormones, is “extremely sensitive to environmental toxins.”
Potential links to cancer helped prompt the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to propose a ban on formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals in straightening products marketed in the United States. Yet, aside from cancer, hair care can be an additional concern for people planning to become pregnant. A study published earlier this year in American Journal of Epidemiology found that use of chemical straighteners was associated with a slight reduction in the ability to conceive and that black, Hispanic, and mixed-race women were more likely to be current or former users of these products. More than half of black participants in the study reported using their first relaxer before age 10.
While cautioning against questioning whether relaxers themselves were the “causative agents” behind their findings, the study’s researchers also wrote that relaxers can cause “burns, lesions, and inflammation of the scalp, thus facilitating the more direct entry of chemical ingredients into the body.”
“Given that we commonly use topical applications to treat a number of scalp, hair, and skin conditions, it is not surprising that these chemicals are absorbed and potentially harmful,” says Dr. Elena A. Christofidesendocrinologist at Columbus, Ohio. She notes that “a toxin does not have to be consumed to be toxic” and that “any constant and regular chemical exposure can potentially permanently alter hormonal stability.”
Hormonal imbalance is primary cause of infertility in women. “Hormones regulate egg growth, the release of newly formed eggs, and the thickening of the uterine lining, among many other important bodily functions,” says Swarup.
“Good” and “bad” hair
In the study on relaxers and the ability to conceive, researchers from Boston University School of Public Health and elsewhere, they have highlighted discrimination, targeted marketing, and the prevalence of “Eurocentric” beauty standards as contributing to racial disparities in the use of these types of products.
Such pressure can prompt a person to use chemicals to straighten their curly or afro-textured hair, says Johanna Lucateresearcher associated with Germanybased at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, which has studied the intersection of Hairstyles and identity of black women.
“There is a growing acceptance and celebration of diversity in hair textures and styles,” says Lukate. But “not everyone feels in a situation – professional, economic, temporal – where they would want or could afford to have natural hair.”
Hair discrimination, however, is not federally prohibited in the United States. 24 states adopted a version of Crown Law – to Create a respectful and open world for natural hair – which prohibits hair discrimination.
Always, the results of a recent survey show that more than one in five black women ages 25 to 34 have been fired from work because of their hair, and black women with textured hair are twice as likely to experience microaggressions at work as women of the same race with straight hair.
A separate study conducted in 2016 by the Institute of Perceptions To assess explicit and implicit attitudes toward black women’s hair, it was found that black women more often suffer from high levels of anxiety because of their hair than white women and are twice as likely likely to experience social pressure to straighten their hair for work.
On average, white women also view textured hair as less beautiful, less professional, and less attractive than straight hair. At the same time, the study found, a majority of men and women in a national sample exhibited implicit biases against black women’s hair, regardless of whether the participants were black or white.
“Many of my professional colleagues tell me that they feel intense societal and cultural pressure to conform to this norm, not just from the white-dominated power structure, but also from their own community.” , explains Christofides.
Just as this pressure can have potential health consequences, bias against natural hairstyles among women of color can also have real-life implications: Research suggests that bias against black women with natural hairstyles may lead to their exclusion from a job interview and more negative evaluations when applying for a job in an industry with dress standards requiring formal attire more conservative.
Lukate says “it’s important to encourage self-acceptance and promote a more inclusive and diverse understanding of beauty,” and to recognize the diversity of hairstyle options available, including weaves and wigs. She also suggests taking a non-judgmental view of the relationship between standards, hair-related pressures and product use.
“The decision to use chemical hair straightening products is a personal decision,” she says.
From a medical perspective, Christofides agrees that women should make the decision themselves. She encourages healthier methods that nevertheless allow “all women to have the hair they choose to best express themselves.”