Home News What to Know About Chemical Hair Relaxers and Your Health

What to Know About Chemical Hair Relaxers and Your Health


Straight hair has long been the dominant social beauty standard for black women, from the working class to those in the U.S. government and corporate world, to celebrities and even some in the White House. Michelle Obama said in 2022 that she felt compelled to straighten her hair rather than wear it natural during her tenure as first lady. “No,” she said. “They weren’t ready.” Hair can be straightened with heat, but the vast majority of black women (an estimated 89%) have used simpler, more affordable chemical straighteners at some point in their lives, often starting in childhood.

However There is growing evidence thatMost of this has not been released to the public, and studies have linked these products, marketed directly to Black women and girls, to a variety of women’s health disorders.

Here’s what to know about relaxants and your health.

For decades, scientists have struggled to explain why black girls show signs of early puberty — breast and pubic hair development — more than twice as often as white girls and earlier than girls of other races. The early onset of puberty and menstruation has been linked to a host of reproductive health disorders. Many issues related to hormone health are more common in black women than in other women, including an aggressive form of breast cancer that kills them 28 percent more often than in white women.

Many ingredients in chemical relaxants are known to disrupt the endocrine system.

When applied to the scalp, these products often cause burns and abrasions, rapidly introducing endocrine-disrupting chemicals into the body. Studies in the past few years have linked frequent use to an increased risk of breast and uterine cancer.

The shelves of beauty supply stores and drugstores in black neighborhoods are filled with chemical hair straighteners marketed to children in brightly colored boxes featuring cute little girls with straight, flowing hair. And the labels can’t be trusted: A 2018 report found that hair products used by black women contain dozens of hormone-disrupting chemicals, but most of the toxic ingredients aren’t listed on the packaging.

Hair straighteners are sold similarly in Europe and the U.S., but they contain different active ingredients because the EU regulates more than 1,300 substances for use in cosmetics, while the FDA bans or restricts only nine. U.S. hair straighteners marketed to children were found to contain the highest levels of the five chemicals banned in the EU. The FDA has proposed a ban on formaldehyde, an ingredient in many hair straighteners that the agency itself has linked to cancer — but no date has been set, and banning one ingredient won’t solve the problem of the others.

After a compelling new study was published in late 2022 linking chemical relaxants to uterine cancer, class-action lawsuits were filed, with thousands of plaintiffs taking messages on billboards, the internet, and television. The cases were consolidated into one lawsuit overseen by a federal judge. It names at least a dozen companies as defendants and is currently in the investigative phase.

Meanwhile, the products have seen a resurgence on social media, with videos on TikTok with the hashtag #relaxerisback showing smiling young women showing off their straightened hair having been viewed more than 24 million times.

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