Do hair dyes and relaxers raise health risks for women of color?

Women of color use more beauty products than white women. And some contain harmful chemicals.

For example, some skin-lightening creams may contain mercury, which can damage the nervous system and kidneys.

“Our study found dozens of hormone disruptors, including some that have been banned in the EU, in many hair products used by Black women,” says Robin Dodson, a scientist at the Silent Spring Institute.

One study followed 46,709 women for eight years. Compared to Black women who didn’t dye their hair, “breast cancer risk was 60 percent higher for those who used permanent dyes every 5 to 8 weeks,” says study co-author Alexandra White of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Semi-permanent dyes weren’t linked to cancer risk. And neither permanent nor semi-permanent dyes were linked to breast cancer risk in white women.

“The type or application of dye may be different for Black compared to white women,” suggests White.

Women who used hair relaxers every 5 to 8 weeks had a 30 percent higher risk of breast cancer than those who never used them, regardless of race (though 74 percent of Black women–—but only 3 percent of white women—used relaxers).

That said, the study can’t prove cause and effect because something else about women who dye or relax their hair may explain their higher risks.

“More research is needed before we can say that the findings are conclusive,” says White.

Bottom Line: Permanent dyes may raise breast cancer risk in Black women. Hair relaxers (straighteners) may pose a risk for all women.

Photo: jchizhe/

The information in this post first appeared in the March 2020 issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter.

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