After a profound surge in both natural hairstyles and hair culture over the last decade—not to mention the introduction of the CROWN Act as slowly but steadily growing legislation across the United States—it may surprise some that there is still vigorous debate between self-avowed “naturalistas” and those who choose to chemically straighten their natural textures. After all, isn’t the point to be able to wear our hair any way we damn well please?
Nevertheless, just last Wednesday, Allure magazine revived the debate on what many consider to be opposite ends of the textural spectrum, noting that a wave of former devotees of natural hair have reverted to relaxers as a lower-maintenance way to care for their tresses. Despite the fact that there are now more product lines catering to natural hair than ever before in the history of the American beauty industry, maintenance remains an issue—as does the textural bias that still persists, even on #TeamNatural.
“It was just a struggle for me to figure out my hair and determine what it likes, what it needs, what products that work with it,” YouTuber Ashley White (All about Ash) told Allure of her decision to abandon her natural hair regime in favor of a relaxer. “It was taking a lot of time and a lot of effort, or just more time and effort than I want to put into my hair to just achieve a simple style.”
Atlanta-based hairstylist and hair loss expert Jasmine Collins presented another angle on the issue when she offered: “Natural does not equal healthy. Just because your hair is natural, does not mean that it’s healthy. There are some people with natural hair that’s unhealthy, and there are some people with relaxed hair that’s healthy.”
While two things certainly can be true at once, a new Oxford academic study posits that relaxed hair may be unhealthier than previously known. As reported by The Guardian, the study, published in the university’s Carcinogenesis journal in May of this year, draws direct correlations between the use of chemical relaxers and increased risk of breast cancer.
From The Guardian:
Published in Oxford University’s Carcinogenesis Journal, the study found that Black women who used these products at least seven times a year for 15 or more years had a roughly 30% increased risk of developing breast cancer compared with more infrequent users.
The research team also analyzed survey data from Boston University’s Black Women’s Health Study, which followed more than 50,000 African American women for more than 25 years and observed their medical diagnoses and any factors that could influence their health. The results? Of the women followed from 1997 to 2017, 95% reported using lye-based relaxers, and ultimately 2,311 developed breast cancers.
The Root has long reported on the higher incidence and mortality rate of breast cancer in Black women—including the fact that Black women under 40 have higher rates of breast cancer compared to white women. “[A]nd at every age, [they] are most likely to be diagnosed with more aggressive triple-negative breast cancers (TNBC), which spread more quickly to lymph nodes (which can distribute cancel cells throughout the body) and are more difficult to survive,” we wrote in October of last year.
We’ve also discussed how the use of permanent hair dye and straighteners has been shown to have a correlation to breast cancer rates, reporting on 2019 research from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences which found that of 46,709 women of various races studied, “women who regularly used permanent hair dye in the year prior to enrolling in the study were 9 percent more likely than women who didn’t use hair dye to develop breast cancer.” Specifics on how straighteners impacted that risk were more “dubious” at the time.
While this news affects any women who regularly use these products, the implications for lack 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.
Oxford’s new research adds concern to the perpetuation of long-held Black beauty practices; and for Tayo Bero, the writer of The Guardian’s article, especially those historically tied to respectability politics and Eurocentric beauty standards.
“It’s important to examine why Black women are so overrepresented in the market for these harmful products to begin with,” writes Bero. “For centuries Black women in the west have been told that their skin tones and hair textures were inferior, unprofessional and largely undesirable.
“Biased, white-centric beauty standards have led many Black women to embrace hair and skin treatments that pose serious risks to their health, often without their knowledge,” the freelance journalist continues. “And despite the abundance of evidence pointing to these risks, corporations and government regulators aren’t doing nearly enough to protect the Black women who are the main consumers of these products.”
As Bero goes on to explain, the issue is far broader than relaxers and dye; “one in 12 beauty and personal care products marketed to Black women in the US were found to contain highly hazardous ingredients such as lye, parabens and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives.” Even more frightening is an indicator that the same disregard for Black health baked in to our policies are often baked into our personal care products—and is even being marketed directly to us. As Bero reports, a the nonprofit Environmental Working Group found “that fewer than 25% of products marketed to Black women scored low in an assessment of their potentially hazardous ingredients, compared with 40% of products marketed to the general public which researchers classified as low-risk.”
Thankfully, there’s hope—and as usual, it lies in Black women saving themselves. Research from leading marketing intelligence agency Mintel in 2018 indicated that 40 percent of Black women at that time preferred to wear their hair chemical-free with no-heat styling, while another 33 percent leaned toward natural with heat styling. More importantly, more of us are reading product labels—“in fact, 70% of Black women say they prefer to read ingredient labels in haircare products so they can avoid certain chemicals,” reported Mintel.
Refreshingly, 51 percent of the Black women surveyed by the agency reported that their current hairstyle made them “feel beautiful.” The takeaway? Whether you’re #TeamNatural, #TeamNeutral, or #UnapologeticallyRelaxed, health is the real beauty secret and consciousness about certain chemicals—and your frequency and level of exposure to them—is key.