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People who use hair straightening chemicals have an increased risk of cancer

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A new study finds that women who often use hair straightening chemicals may face higher risk of uterine cancer. A majority of those who report using these products are Black women. NPR's Alana Wise has more.

ALANA WISE, BYLINE: The National Institutes of Health reported an increased risk of uterine cancer in people who use hair straightening chemicals. Among women who use these products, often called perms or relaxers, the risk of developing uterine cancer more than doubled. These treatments are especially popular among Black women. Dr. Alexandra White, the lead author on the study, noted the risk of developing uterine cancer is relatively small.

ALEXANDRA WHITE: We found that among women who, when they enrolled in the study, told us that they were frequent users of the hair straightening products, meaning that they use them more than four times a year, they had about over double the risk of uterine cancer.

WISE: The research project analyzed data from tens of thousands of sisters to women with a breast cancer diagnosis. Over the 11-year study, 378 cases of uterine cancer were diagnosed.

WHITE: We know that certain formulations of straighteners can release formaldehyde when heated. And in our study, we found that 60% of those who reported using these products were Black women.

WISE: The NIH study comes amid mounting pressure from Black women to address the way natural, curly and kinky hair is viewed in society. Black women have often been pressured to conform to a standard of Eurocentric beauty trends or face public rejection and limited employment opportunities.

NICARDA JACKSON: Society made us feel like we had to look a certain way.

WISE: That was Nicarda Jackson, a Maryland stylist who specializes in Black hair.

JACKSON: Sometimes we're not happy with having a kinkier hair texture, and then we are conditioned to feel like someone that has straight hair has good hair.

WISE: But many women are now embracing their natural hair. Cancer-causing chemicals, Jackson says, are a big reason why. Chemical hair treatments that would once last her hair shop only a couple of weeks now sit much longer as fewer of her clients go for the permed look.

JACKSON: A lot of people are afraid to get chemicals in their hair now because of cancer. I used to have, like, a eight-pound relaxer, which last me for two weeks. Now I can have a eight-pound relaxer just sit there for months.

WISE: The same sisters study also found an increased risk of both breast and ovarian cancers linked to hair dyes and chemical straighteners. Cynthia Judge is a Black 74-year-old woman who has survived both breast and ovarian cancer. Like many women her age, Judge had her hair chemically processed for most of her life, though it's impossible to say whether these processes had any effect on her diagnoses.

CYNTHIA JUDGE: Black women can possibly get uterine cancer as a result of a long time using perms. That was a little disconcerting to me.

WISE: Judge, who now works at a breast health center in Las Vegas, said she would advise women to keep on top of their health.

JUDGE: The things that we fear most are the things that we need to just put our feet together and just deal with it because it is our life. It is our health. And we want to stay around for those we love and those who love us.

WISE: When caught early, the five-year survival rate of uterine cancer is more than 80%. Alana Wise, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTAY SAVAGE SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.