Commentary

Studies, class-action suit link hair relaxers to cancer. Black women are at risk.

November 22, 2023 5:30 am

CROWN Act supporters gathered in the Kentucky Capitol Rotunda to support Senate Bill 63, March 1, 2023. The measure, which would have protected Kentuckians from discrimination based on hairstyles or textures identified with race, stalled in the Senate. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

When I saw reports about a National Institutes of Health study that found women who used chemical hair straighteners known as relaxers were more than twice as likely to develop uterine cancer than those who didn’t, a sulfur-scented flashback zapped me back to my first experience getting my hair relaxed.

I was 10 or 11, and my mama was preparing me and my little sister for Easter church service the next day. She had laid out our frilly white dresses with ankle socks to match and black patent leather Mary Janes; all that was left to do on that Saturday evening was our hair, so Mom pulled out a box of children’s no-lye relaxer and transformed into a kitchen table chemist.

She mixed a small bottle of activator liquid into a jar of relaxer base, and the goopy, pale pink mixture smelled like rotten eggs or something you might clean your bathroom with. That worried me a little, but not enough to dissuade me from the relaxer process that promised to turn my naturally kinky African American hair into silky smooth strands that could be bedecked with barrettes, like the little girl’s on the box. There wasn’t anything on the packaging that said the relaxer was unsafe either, unless you got it in your eyes.

So I squeezed my eyes shut while Mom applied a thin layer of petroleum jelly around my hairline, “so it won’t burn your skin,” she said. She carefully plastered the relaxer onto my hair with the same skillful motions she used to ice cakes, and when I told her it was starting to tingle, she said that meant the treatment was working.

As time passed, the tingling turned to itching and then to burning. It felt like a hot curling iron was pressed directly against my crown, sending waves of intense heat all over my head and making my still-closed eyes water. But finally I could bend over the bathroom sink for Mom to rinse the relaxer from my strands, which, I saw when I finally opened my eyes, now hung limp instead of clumping in their usual tight coils — a look that my elders sometimes called “nappy.” Mom then styled my hair to resemble the relaxer box girl’s straight strands, and I was so happy.

Mom applied her own relaxer that night too, after mine and my sister’s. We didn’t know then what we do now: Relaxers are a byproduct of discrimination Afro-haired people have faced for centuries in America, stemming from a beauty standard that has favored Eurocentric features like straight hair, slim noses, thin lips and fair skin. Relaxers have long been a way many Black women have conformed to this standard, which has often been necessary to advance in their careers and to also be seen by the larger white society as “presentable,” “neat” and “stylish.”

The message that such standards broadcast — that natural, kinky-curly Black hair is not presentable, neat or stylish — has only recently been challenged in our society, evidenced by passage of legislation like the so-called CROWN Act which in 2020 updated Virginia’s human rights anti-discrimination law to include “traits historically associated with race, including hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles such as braids, locks, and twists.”

(Editor’s note: At least four Kentucky cities — Covington, Frankfort, Lexington and Louisville — have enacted local CROWN Acts. But no state law protects Kentuckians against discrimination based on hairstyles or textures associated with race, even though bills to do so were introduced last year in both chambers of the legislature.

A bill filed by Rep. George Brown, D-Lexington, didn’t even get a committee hearing. Senate Judiciary Chairman Whitney Westerfield’s bill made it out of committee but languished on the Senate floor. On March 1, Westerfield told a rally of CROWN Act supporters that it should be one of  lawmakers’ “easiest votes. … The hair that God gave you ought to be the hair that you get to wear.” In the end, his bill was never put to a vote — even after the Republican from Fruit Hill added an amendment specifying that reasonable workplace or school safety policies would not be affected by the legislation. )

Supporters of the CROWN Act rally outside the Kentucky Capitol, March 1, 2023. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

Codifying the acceptance of Black hair in public accommodations and employment is excellent progress, but it may have come too late for many Black women.

NIH isn’t alone in discovering a connection between relaxers and cancer. Last month, Boston University released a new study that reported “long-term use of chemical hair relaxers by postmenopausal Black women was associated with increased risk of uterine cancer.” This study followed 45,000 women for 22 years, noting their hair relaxer use and cancer rates. The disparities it found between Black women and other women are alarming.

“We did our best to adjust for possible other explanations for why the women got cancer in our statistical analysis,” said Boston University Associate Professor of Medicine Kimberly Bertrand, an epidemiologist and one of the study’s authors. “We tried to account for other risk factors of uterine cancer that we’re aware of, like obesity or reproductive issues, and ruled those out.

“You can’t prove causality with this type of study design but you can prove correlation,” she continued. “There’s strong biological plausibility that some of the chemicals included in these products do have effects on the hormone system, and could plausibly be associated with cancers.”

Like many cosmetic and beauty products, hair relaxers are loosely regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That lack of close oversight potentially puts people who use them at risk, said Lee Floyd, a Richmond-based attorney who has been appointed to the plaintiffs’ steering committee of a massive class-action lawsuit against several global beauty brands that produce and market hair relaxers. The case now includes over 8,200 women who have used relaxers and developed cancer, including “hundreds” from Virginia, Floyd said.

“These are products that are sold to women of color, not just in the U.S., but internationally. They are also marketed to children. In many instances, these products are marketed as created from ‘natural’ substances, like olive oil or Moroccan oil,” she said. “What we’re now learning is that these hair relaxer products contain dangerous carcinogenic substances, which, again, women and children are applying to their hair without any warning of the carcinogens. It’s heartbreaking.”

The lawsuits seek to not only compensate victims for the harm they may have suffered due to the relaxers but also force beauty brands to disclose on packaging and marketing materials that the products contain dangerous substances that could cause cancer. Had those types of warnings been included on relaxer boxes from the start, many women — including my mama, my sister and me — wouldn’t have used them.

Master stylists and sisters Aleta Smith and Areta Johnson might have thought twice about applying the treatments to their customers’ hair too.

“I’ve done countless relaxers,” said Smith, who has served mostly Black women over her 40 years as a stylist in Hanover County, Virginia. She hasn’t had any clients who developed uterine cancer, she said, and is curious whether the box relaxers at the center of the lawsuit contain different chemicals than the professional-grade, pre-mixed relaxers she and her sister use.

The back-to-natural hair movement sweeping the nation in recent years has decreased the number of relaxers Smith applies now, but she said that “back in the day, almost all of my customers were getting relaxers, and they have to be touched up every six weeks. Some of them wanted it sooner than six weeks but I wouldn’t give it to them.”

After retiring from Twin Images, the salon she shared with Smith, Johnson is now a cosmetology instructor at Rowanty Technical Center, teaching hair care and stylist skills to students from Dinwiddie, Prince George and Sussex County Public Schools and preparing them to take the state cosmetology licensing exam. Johnson also said she’s not aware of any relaxer clients developing uterine cancer, but she stopped relaxing her own hair about 10 years ago.

“I was a cancer survivor, and my hair texture had started changing,” she said. “And I realized I could get the same look without a relaxer and my hair would be healthier and not prone to thinning.”

If she was still behind the stylist’s chair, Johnson said she would advise clients to “really think carefully about getting a relaxer now. How you wear your hair is a personal choice, but with these studies coming out, I would be leery of hair relaxers.”

It’s been over 10 years since I last used creamy crack, as relaxers are colloquially called in Black culture. My decision to stop was less about the health risks — which I didn’t know existed — and more about empowering myself as an African American woman to proudly wear my hair in its natural texture, Eurocentric beauty standards be damned, because Black is beautiful.

While I know many women who now reject the sociocultural programming of their mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations that made relaxers a requirement for the well-coiffed, I know others who still relax their hair. That is their choice and right. But everyone should also have the right to be fully informed about the cancer risks relaxers probably pose so that they can make the choice that best suits them, their hair and their personal definition of beauty, safely.

This column is republished from Virginia Mercury, a sister publication of Kentucky Lantern and part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Samantha Willis
Samantha Willis

Samantha Willis, a writer and journalist whose experience in digital, print and broadcast media spans 12 years, is commentary and deputy editor at the Virginia Mercury. Her work has appeared in leading publications including Glamour Magazine, Essence Magazine, Scalawag Magazine, and the Columbia Journalism Review, and within a wide range of Virginia-based media.

MORE FROM AUTHOR