What Research Is Telling Us About Permanent Hair Dye and Chemical Hair Straightener Use
Updated: Jul 22
Various media outlets, including the New York Times, covered a story in late 2019 related to the finding that women who use permanent hair dye and chemical hair straighteners have a higher risk of developing breast cancer than women who do not use these products. What the researchers found was that women who regularly used permanent hair dye in the year before enrolling in the study were 9% more likely to develop breast cancer than women who did not use the products. Those women who used chemical hair straighteners at least every five to eight weeks were about 30% more likely to develop breast cancer.
The research team found little to no increase in breast cancer risk for semi-permanent or temporary dye use. In general, researchers have been studying the possible link between hair dye and cancer for a long time, but results have been inconsistent and mixed. There still is no consensus on this topic, with some other experts saying that it still may be too early to make these linkages.
The research findings made me pause. I grew up in communities that have hair salons every three blocks. Pair that with cultural ideals that imprint the idea that straight hair is more beautiful, more professional, more desirable. One way to achieve this 'ideal' is chemical hair straightening. Even though there are women who are embracing their natural hair, the beauty myths around hair persist. As a woman who tries to stay in the know and with a Bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies, why was I not aware of the harm of dying or chemically straightening my hair?
What is this study and why have I heard so little about it?
The Sisters Study is run by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), which is one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The key investigators are Dale P. Sandler, PhD and Clarice Weinberg, PhD. They, alongside a team of researchers and staff, have published multiple findings. From 2003 to 2009, more than 50,000 women across the US and Puerto Rico, who were between ages 35–74 and whose sister had breast cancer, joined this landmark research effort to find causes of breast cancer.
Breast cancer is a serious disease that will affect 1 in 8 women in the U.S. over their lifetimes. The Sister Study gives us valuable information about the different reasons women get breast cancer. This information may help us learn about ways to prevent breast cancer and other related health conditions.
How is this impacting women of color and communities of color differently?
The Sisters Study also highlighted an alarming finding that among African American women using permanent dyes every five to eight weeks or more was associated with a 60% increased risk of breast cancer compared with an 8% increased risk for white women.
According to commentary from the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, African American consumers purchase 9 times more ethnic hair and beauty products than other groups and disproportionately purchase hair relaxers and straighteners. Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic beauty market segment, and Asian Americans spend 70% more than the national average on skin care products.