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In recent years we’ve witnessed a trend of more Black women leaving their natural hair to return to relaxers. What is concerning though is that alongside this trend, we continue to see more and more studies reporting the chemicals that are in straightening hair products are putting more women — especially Black women — at risk for both breast and uterine cancer.
Back when I was in my 20s, something that I was known for was being unpredictable when it came to my hair. From week to week, you never really knew what my hair color or hair texture was gonna be. As a creative, I miss those days. But when it comes to my health, I’m glad that I’ve transitioned to my natural hair and, as far as color goes, I’m into semi-permanent rinses more than anything.
I wish I could say that the initial transition was strictly health-related, but it actually wasn’t. Super long story short, I just got sick of putting so many chemicals in my hair that I never really got to know the locks that I was born with. Still, with the influx of intel that’s been coming out about how much hair relaxers and permanent hair dyes are directly linked to cancer — I am relieved that I let the “white crack” (if you’ve never read the book Nappily Ever After or seen the movie before, check them out for the crack context”> and color alone. I’ll expound.
Hair Straightening Chemicals Connected to Cancer. What’s Really Going On?
Scientists have been studying the use of chemical hair straighteners and permanent hair dye and its effects on women’s health, and increasingly the results are pointing to an increased risk of multiple forms of cancer. Boston University’s 2021 Black Women’s Health Study of 59,000 African American women found “Black women who used hair products containing lye at least seven times a year for 15 or more years had an approximately 30 percent increased risk of estrogen receptor positive breast cancer compared with more infrequent users” as reported by PBS.
More studies are being released around the fact that the chemicals that are in a lot of these hair products are putting more women — especially Black women — at risk for both breast and uterine cancer
In October of 2022 the National Institutes of Health released findings of an increased risk of hormone-related cancers in people who use hair straightening chemicals, and Black women are more likely to use these products.
Additional study findings published in October 2022 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute examined associations between hair product use and incident uterine cancer among more than 33 ,000 participants in the Sister Study. They found that “Women who had reported frequent use of straighteners (more than 4 times in the previous year”> were about 2½ times more likely to develop uterine cancer” according to the American Cancer Society.
Some of these findings say that women who use lye-based relaxers increase their chances of receiving a breast cancer diagnosis by 20 percent while women are nearly doubling their chances of being diagnosed with uterine cancer. All of this is especially alarming within the Black community considering the fact that although Black women are less likely than white women to be diagnosed with breast cancer, they are far more likely to die from it.
Permanent Hair Dye and the Risk of Cancer
It’s not just hair straightening chemicals, permanent hair dye is in question as well. Scientists from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS”>, part of the National Institutes of Health, studied data from more than 44,000 participants in the Sister Study and found that “women who regularly used permanent hair dye in the year prior to enrolling in the study were 9% more likely than women who didn’t use hair dye to develop breast cancer. Among African American women, using permanent dyes every five to eight weeks or more was associated with a 60% increased risk of breast cancer as compared with an 8% increased risk for white women.” The Cleveland Clinic report that some data connects hair dye with other cancers in addition to breast cancer, “the most well-studied connection is between bladder cancer and hair dye.”
Should You Stop Chemically Straightening and Coloring Your Hair?
Does this mean that you should never chemically straighten your hair or color-treat it again? The decision is yours to make, and we want you to know as much information as possible before you make it. It’s important to know that the risk of cancer was linked to regular use, which was defined as “more than 4 times in the past year.” Also, please don’t forget to get regular check-ups while seeking out as many alternatives as possible, so that you can put your mind at ease.
Interestingly enough, some Black women feel the era of relaxers is over (check out MadameNoire’s “Hair Relaxer Sales Have Declined Significantly In The Past Decade” and Forbes’s “Black Women Going Natural Push Entire Industry To The Brink Of Extinction””>. As for me and my two cents, lye is a damn lie, so definitely go with a no-lye based relaxer if you must go permanently straight — oh, and the less you use permanent hair dyes, the less you have to worry about them at all. Besides, it’s not like there aren’t healthier alternatives that can help you to achieve the look of straight hair and/or a change in your hair’s hue without so many…potential complications.
7 Healthier Ways to Get Straight and/or Colored Hair
Here are seven suggestions that can greatly help you experiment with hair color and stretching out your natural texture – without using straightening chemicals and permanent hair dye.
1. Invest in an Effective Hair Dryer
Something that I wish I had purchased a LONG time ago is this Revlon One Step Hair Dryer. It doesn’t get super hot. It pulls out way less hair. And my cuticles are much smoother when I’m done using it (I’m not the only one who thinks so; a hilarious YouTube reviewer agrees“>. If you want your hair to get bone straight, you might need to flat iron your hair after blow drying it with this, but I’d be shocked if you needed to do more than a one pass. It’s definitely one of the best investments that I’ve made into my personal hair routine in a long time.
2. Apply some Color Wow Dream Coat
There are so many TikToks about this product that it can literally make your head spin. Yet, interestingly enough, I get why. If you semi-saturate your hair with it before you blow dry your hair, it does seem to make it significantly straighter for a longer period of time; even if you’ve got Type 4 hair. No joke.
3. Stretch Your Hair Out Naturally
It seems like almost since the beginning of time, there have been non-heat-related ways to stretch curly hair including threading, banding, braid-outs and twist-outs. I won’t lie — based on how thick and/or long your hair is, you need to be prepared to watch a movie or catch up with a friend on the phone while using these methods because the process can be a bit long — still, the end results are always worth it.
4. Go with a Silk Press
If you were to ask 20 different stylists to explain the process of a silk press, you would probably get the same generalized answer with a few variations as far as the details go. For the most part, it’s when you blow out your hair and flat iron it. One twist that some stylists add is wrapping hair in Saran wrap (like here, here and here“> in order to “set” the hair. When done correctly, your hair can remain straight for up to two weeks (especially if it’s not too humid outside”>.
5. Color your hair with a semi-permanent product or colored hair wax
As far as hair color goes, semi-permanent dyes and rinses are much safer and since they oftentimes last through at least a dozen washes, they can easily help you to maintain the color that you chose for a few months. Just keep in mind that they are usually best for maintaining your own color, hiding grays or going darker. And what if you want to do something drastic? There’s always colored hair wax to your rescue; some brands are even vegan. It may be temporary but the results are super vibrant.
6. Play with a Wig or Extensions
When it comes to these lace fronts out here, they didn’t come to play! Based on how they’re installed, they can look like the hair is growing straight out of your scalp which means that you can cornrow your natural hair underneath and give it a rest for up to 4-6 weeks at a time. Same goes for a lot of weaves (so long as you sew or clip them in instead of using any adhesive”>. Because both of these options require very little natural hair manipulation and they help to keep your ends out of harm’s way, they fall into the category of being a “protective style” which means you can wear straight and/or colored hair without damaging your own hair in the process.
7. Embrace your natural texture
Of course, you can do what I’ve been doing for many years now — embracing your natural hair texture. As I basically said in the intro, so many of us have been conditioned to think that curly texture hair is challenging, more expensive to take care of and not as visually appealing that we’ve automatically reached out for relaxers when all of this couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, learning your hair requires time, patience and finding the right products — oh, but once the light bulb goes on…it does wonders for your self-esteem/self-image. And the fact that it’s by far a healthier route to take? Well, that’s just the icing on the cake, y’all. Give it a shot. I’m sure that, in time, you’ll see just what I mean.
Looking to straighten your curls without relaxers? Here are the Top 10 Tips to Straighten Curly Hair Without Frizz