Over the years there have been numerous questions and concern about the impact chemicals in hair products have on our health. This concern has been heightened in the black community for some time, particularly with respect to relaxers (chemical hair straighteners).
Several studies have been conducted exploring if there is a link between hair products and fibroids, cancer and other conditions, but these have been inconclusive. When a link has been shown researchers have been cautious explaining that association doesn’t mean causation – i.e. they couldn’t prove that relaxers actually contribute to the development of fibroids or cancer and therefore they all recommended that more research should be conducted.
In June of this year, researchers from Rutgers University in New Jersey published the results from their research into specific hair products and whether their use is associated with an increase in breast cancer risk. In this study, researchers looked at 4,285 African America and white women; 2,280 had breast cancer and 2,005 didn’t. The study compared those with breast cancer to those who didn’t have breast cancer to determine if differences existed that may be linked to breast cancer risk. The women were aged 20-75 and were from New York City and ten counties n New Jersey.
The study aimed to determine if hair dyes, relaxers and deep conditioners containing cholesterol or placenta were associated with an increased risk in developing breast cancer. In order to explore this researchers collected vast amounts of data on the women who took part in the study. This included socio-demographic data and their exposure to known risk factors such as family and personal history of breast cancer, smoking, alcohol consumption and more. They also asked participants about their use of the previously mentioned hair products, what shade of dye they used and how long they used these products for.
What did they find?
The researchers found that for African American women there was a 51% increase in their risk of developing breast cancer among those who used dark brown or black hair dye. They also found that in African American women there was a 72% increase in oestrogen-positive breast cancers amongst those who used dark brown or black dyes and a 36% increase in oestrogen-positive breast cancers in those who used dyes more frequently.
In white women they found a 74% increase in breast cancer risk in those who used relaxers and a large increase in risk in women who used both relaxers and hair dyes. They also found that use of hair dyes resulted in a 54% increase in risk of developing oestrogen-positive breast cancers whilst relaxer use caused a 2.6 fold increase in oestrogen-negative breast cancers.
There was no link between deep conditioners and breast cancer.
What does this mean?
The researchers concluded that “these novel findings support a relationship between the use of some hair products and breast cancer.”
When speaking about their work, lead author of the research paper, Adana Llanos said
“Just because we found these associations doesn’t mean that if you dye your hair dark, or any colour, you’re going to get breast cancer, but at the same time, the study points to something else we should be mindful of.”
The results exposed a significant association with oestrogen-positive breast cancers so the current hypothesis is that the dyes may contain chemical compounds that are similar to oestrogen or stimulate pathways that cause the production of oestrogen. It was hard to determine this as women in the study weren’t asked what brands of products they used so researchers couldn’t explore the actual chemicals within these products that women were exposed to. But Alana Llanos said:
“There must be some role for oestrogen for sure.”
Her research team recognise that there were limitations to the study and that further work is needed to truly understand the link between hair products and breast cancer risk.
The Lake Foundation is pleased to see more research in this area being conducted and this work needs to continue until we have a definitive answer as to whether hair products affect our health or not. In the meantime, we would advise that women take a look at this research and make an informed decision as to whether they should continue using hair dyes and relaxers. We always say people should exercise caution in the use of products where there is found to be a credible association with cancer, or any disease, until a clear answer can be provided on whether that association means that a particular product contributes to the development of a disease.
You can read the full research paper for this study here