Black women wear their hair proudly — they're diverse in shape, style, and texture. But the use of some products is reportedly harming them. Around the country, Black women have brought lawsuits against companies over the use of certain chemicals in hair relaxers and hair straighteners, claiming there's an increased risk of uterine cancer. A ban on those chemicals is under consideration by the Food and Drug Administration.
Dr. Yvette Cozier of the Boston University School of Public Health is an investigator on the Black Women's Health Study. Started in 1995, the study checks in with participants every two years. On this week's episode of Basic Black, she shared some of the study's findings. "We found an increase in post-menopausal women in uterine cancer with very frequent use of chemical relaxers over a long period of time," she said.
"It's important to understand what we are putting in our mouths, on our skin, in our hair, so it's important to read the labels," said Dr. Deborah Scott, director of the hair loss clinic at Brigham & Women's Hospital. "I think it's important if you're having your hair straightened to have them share the label with you. We know there are lists of compounds like formaldehyde or formaldehyde releasers, or formaldehyde substitutes like methylene glycol, which turns into formaldehyde with heat. It's important to look for these ingredients and avoid them."
Over time, fewer Black women are opting to straighten their hair. "We've shifted our mindsets. We're learning that there are other options; you can rock your natural hair," said Sharita Payton of the LOFT Hair Studio. "I think with the CROWN Act people are feeling more confident, and now with this information coming out, people are more apt to take the healthier version ... they're definitely looking for other options, that's for sure." The CROWN Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, prevents hair-based discrimination at work and school and has been passed in 24 states, including Massachusetts.
Renee Landers, a professor of Law at Suffolk University, said lawsuits claiming that the chemicals in hair relaxers and straighteners caused cancers may not succeed. "About a year ago, when the NIH study came out, the tort lawyers saw their opportunity," she said. "The issue I see with the cases is the issue of proving causation. The association is probably not going to be enough to be successful."
If chemical hair relaxers end up being removed from the market, it may be more likely to happen as a result of government regulation than lawsuits. "The FDA's role is to prevent the harm from happening in the first place," said Landers. FDA has begun a rulemaking process by "announcing its intention to consider banning formaldehyde based substances for cosmetic and hair straightening products."
These products are not tightly regulated today. "Manufacturers have a lot of leeway of what they can put in this product, and as a result, we don't have the full list of chemicals in these products," said Cozier. "Until we can do that, it may not be as fruitful to come out with a full ban. If we're going to ban, let's make sure that we ban the thing that actually needs to be banned."