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Use of chemical hair products increases breast cancer risk

A new study shows it's even higher for black women and frequent hair-dyers.

Many people dye their hair, whether it's to change the color or hide the grey. An estimated one-third of women over the age of 18 and 10 percent of men in the United States use hair dye, and while the effect might be visually appealing, a new study reveals that there could be invisible damage going on below the scalp.

A study recently published in the International Journal of Cancer has found a link between use of hair dyes and chemical straighteners and incidence of cancer in women. Such links have been detected in previous studies, but as NPR explained, those findings were inconsistent; this larger and longer-term study “provides firmer evidence of a link.”

The researchers used data from an ongoing study of 46,709 American women, known as the Sister Study. These women are between the ages of 35 and 74, and 9 percent are African-American. All have sisters who have had breast cancer, so are considered higher-risk themselves, but were cancer-free at the start of the study. The women were asked about their hair care routines, i.e. use of chemical straighteners and permanent hair dyes, and then had a follow-up meeting eight years later.

The researchers found that white women using permanent hair dye were 7 percent more likely to develop breast cancer, and African American women were 45 percent more likely. From NPR: “That risk was even higher among black women who dyed their hair frequently, every one or two months.”

As for chemical hair straighteners, the risk was the same, regardless of race. Women who used chemical hair straighteners were “30 percent more likely to develop breast cancer than those who didn't use the products. However, black women are more likely to use them, with about 75 percent of black women in the study reporting they straighten their hair.”

The study did not look at specific ingredients, although these products are notoriously harmful and known for carcinogenic ingredients. Chemical hair straighteners have been linked to a wide range of health problems, including baldness, uterine growths, premature birth, and low infant birth rate. In 2016 the Environmental Working Group published an analysis of beauty products marketed toward black women that revealed some disturbing facts:

“[Common products] showed estrogenic or anti-estrogenic activity, meaning that they mimicked the effects of the hormone estrogen. Other studies have found that Black Americans had higher urinary concentrations of parabens, the hormone-disrupting chemicals commonly used as preservatives in personal care products, pharmaceuticals and foods.”

It brings to mind the horrifying revelations made in Toxic Beauty, an excellent documentary film that shows just how unregulated the cosmetics industry is. There have been no government-mandated updates since the 1930s, despite countless tragedies occurring as a result of careless manufacturing.

This study's findings are yet more evidence of that – that the beauty world is a Wild West where women take their life in their own hands as they pull items off the shelf. Until the entire system is overhauled, which is unlikely, it's crucial that women do their own research, choose the safest products, and – this isn't easy – question whether or not they even need these chemicals on their bodies.

A new study shows it's even higher for black women and frequent hair-dyers.