It’s no harebrained notion but hard fact. Evidence behind headline news confirms that chemical hair relaxers double the risk of uterine cancer in U.S. women. The NIH (National Institutes of Health) in October published its findings in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, establishing the cancer link as conclusive after 10+ years of research that followed the lives of 33,500 women ages 35-74 of equal diversity.
During the study, 378 new uterine cancer cases were diagnosed among participants. Researchers found that women reporting frequent use of the products (more than 4x in the previous year) upon entering the trial were more than twice as likely to develop uterine cancer at a later point as those reporting no use.
Out of the women diagnosed, 60 percent self-identified as non-Hispanic Black (some Latina women are affected, too). Despite any indication of racial difference between product use and uterine cancer cases, Black women were disproportionately affected because they were more likely to use the products frequently and from an earlier age.
Jenny Mitchell, a 32-year-old African-American woman from Missouri, filed a lawsuit in October (2022) against L’Oréal and other familiar labels, all chemical hair relaxers she used frequently for two decades, alleging they caused her to develop uterine cancer in her late 20s. She reports that she was introduced to the products at age eight through marketing campaigns directly targeting Black communities.
At 28, Mitchell underwent a full hysterectomy to arrest her cancer. “I am still feeling the void of not being able to bear my own child,” she said in an interview with a local Chicago network affiliate.
NBC reports that 95 percent of all U.S. Black women use hair straightening products. The idea of permanent relaxers is not to stretch the hair taut but to release its shape altogether so strands fall limp and silky, giving the appearance of naturally straight hair whose shafts are round under a microscope rather than flat.
“Because Black women use hair relaxer products more frequently and tend to initiate use at earlier ages than other races and ethnicities, the NIH study’s findings may be even more relevant for them,” said Che-Jung Chang, Ph.D., contributing study author and NIEHS (National Environmental Health Sciences/part of NIH) research fellow.
A list of potentially harmful chemicals has not yet been released but most of these products contain formaldehyde, known to cause cancer when heated. Heat is a key part of the straightening process.
The Steep Cost of a “Perm.”
Today professional women with straight hair are perceived by male counterparts as more polished, respected, powerful, true to the ancient Eurocentric standard of beauty. Modern psychological studies reveal men are more likely to open doors for women with straight hair. For some, the controversy won’t matter. One salon stylist told Women’s Wear Daily, “The clients don’t care. They want it done. It is a life changer.”
During the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, Black hair became the subject of a Civil Rights feud when a group of workplace executives tried to regulate highly textured hairstyles, arguing they were distracting.
In March 2022, both the House and Senate passed the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair), banning discrimination of hairstyles in workplaces, effective in 18 states. But in May, SCOTUS, with the fewest sitting white justices in history, declined to hear the argument for enacting CROWN as federal law, effective in all 50 states.
Banding together in the wake of these shifts, many Americans are posting viral mantras and emojis, pushing back on the notion that something as subjective as a woman’s beauty, an attached part of her body, can be mandated or standardized.
There’s also more you can do: file a lawsuit. Taking part in a hair relaxer lawsuit can help send a message that hurting women is not okay. If you used a hair relaxer product and were diagnosed with uterine cancer, contact us now to see if you can take legal action.
Cynthia Alcott is a freelance writer contributing to A Case for Women.