Black women’s hair products are killing us. Why isn’t more being done?

<span>Photograph: Hero Images Inc./Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo</span>

Photograph: Hero Images Inc./Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

A new study reveals what some scientists and researchers have suspected for years – that frequent and long-term use of lye-based hair relaxers may have serious health effects, including breast cancer. Published in Oxford University’s Carcinogenesis Journal, the study found that Black women who used these products at least seven times a year for 15 or more years had a roughly 30% increased risk of developing breast cancer compared with more infrequent users.

The research team also analyzed survey data from Boston University’s Black Women’s Health Study, which followed more than 50,000 African American women for more than 25 years and observed their medical diagnoses and any factors that could influence their health. The results? Of the women followed from 1997 to 2017, 95% reported using lye-based relaxers, and ultimately 2,311 developed breast cancers.

This additional risk factor is just one part of a wide race gap in breast cancer rates among American women. We already know that Black women have the highest occurrence of breast cancer before reaching the age of 40, are more likely than white women to develop highly aggressive breast cancers, and are more likely to die from it at any age – 40% more likely, to be precise.

And when it comes to the role of haircare products in that imbalance, none of this is new. In 2019, research published in the International Journal of Cancer found that ​​permanent dye use was associated with a 45% higher breast cancer risk in Black women, compared with a roughly 7% higher risk among white women who used these products.

It’s important to examine why Black women are so overrepresented in the market for these harmful products to begin with. For centuries Black women in the west have been told that their skin tones and hair textures were inferior, unprofessional and largely undesirable.

Even today, anti-Black hair discrimination is rampant in many professional settings, particularly in corporate and customer-facing roles – so much so that Black advocacy groups and US legislators have been working to pass new laws that would make hair discrimination illegal. So far, however, only 13 states have passed the “Crown Act.”

Biased, white-centric beauty standards have led many Black women to embrace hair and skin treatments that pose serious risks to their health, often without their knowledge. And despite the abundance of evidence pointing to these risks, corporations and government regulators aren’t doing nearly enough to protect the Black women who are the main consumers of these products.

For context, one in 12 beauty and personal care products marketed to Black women in the US were found to contain highly hazardous ingredients such as lye, parabens and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. Research from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group also found that fewer than 25% of products marketed to Black women scored low in an assessment of their potentially hazardous ingredients, compared with 40% of products marketed to the general public which researchers classified as low-risk.

This issue cuts across all aspects of the beauty industry. Skin lightening products, another legacy of the cultural idea that dark skin is less desirable, are a thriving industry in the US. Women of color reportedly spent more than $2bn on such products in 2020. Users have reported chemical burns and lifelong scars.

Warnings about the dangers of these products are minimal, leaving many Black women with insufficient information with which to make decisions on what products they use. To combat this, the EWG created a database listing all known personal care products targeted toward Black people, with information about their ingredients and potential problems. Unfortunately, this kind of effort isn’t happening on any large scale, or being supported by the companies who actually make and market these products – a gap that will no doubt continue to leave Black women at risk.

In a society that imposes largely Eurocentric standards of beauty, desirability and respectability on all women, Black women in particular are placed under immense pressure to mold themselves to these standards in order to be accepted in social and professional settings. It’s crucial that personal care companies and the government do their part to keep Black female consumers safe and healthy.