When it comes to black women and hair texture, The Glow Up has always maintained that it’s a personal concern—in fact, we launched on the stance that we’re #TeamNeutral. Unfortunately, a new report published on Wednesday in the International Journal of Cancer indicates that hair texture may also be a health concern, as scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have discovered that women who chemically straighten or color-treat their hair with permanent dye are at higher risk of developing breast cancer, and the risk increases with the frequency of use. The data, gleaned from 46,709 women in the Sister Study, revealed 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,” reports the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS; part of the NIH).
While this news affects any women who regularly use these products, the implications for black women are frightening, to say the least. According to the NIEHS, for African-American women who use permanent dyes every five to eight weeks or more, there is a 60 percent increased risk of breast cancer, compared to an 8 percent increase in the risk for white women. And while the use of hair straighteners at least every five to eight weeks posed a consistently increased risk for black and white women—about 30 percent—as we well know, the use of straighteners is far more prevalent among black women, many of whom also use permanent hair coloring.
These findings may also have implications when it comes to understanding the disproportionate rates of breast cancer among black women. “Researchers have been studying the possible link between hair dye and cancer for a long time, but results have been inconsistent,” said corresponding author Alexandra White, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Environment and Cancer Epidemiology Group (h/t NIEHS). “In our study, we see a higher breast cancer risk associated with hair dye use, and the effect is stronger in African American women, particularly those who are frequent users.”
According to the NIEHS, the association with chemical straighteners is slightly more dubious. Though also not entirely new information, there is a need for more research, says Dale Sandler, Ph.D., chief of the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch.
“We are exposed to many things that could potentially contribute to breast cancer, and it is unlikely that any single factor explains a woman’s risk,” says Sandler. “While it is too early to make a firm recommendation, avoiding these chemicals might be one more thing women can do to reduce their risk of breast cancer.”
Admittedly, we’ll be exercising caution—and exploring some hopefully less toxic options. On the bright side, the NIH team found little to no increase in breast cancer risk for semi-permanent or temporary dye use.