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‘Anytime You Put Chemicals in Your Hair…There’s Going to be Some Type of Ramifications’: New Study Links Chemical Found In Some Black Hair Products to Breast Cancer

Black women are at higher risk of getting breast cancer and what they are putting in their hair could be part of the blame. A new study revealing paraben chemicals often found in hair care products marketed to Black women show a direct link to increased cancer cells in Black women.

The study, to be released in full soon, is part of a community-led project called the Bench to Community Initiative aimed at creating ways to reduce exposures to harmful chemicals in hair and personal care products in Black women with breast cancer.

The study’s findings come as no big surprise to some Black women Atlanta Black Star interviewed for reaction to the harmful effects of using hair products with paraben chemicals. “It’s shocking but not shocking, I tend to think anytime you put chemicals in your hair or chemicals in your body in any shape or form, there’s going to be some type of ramifications,” said Gabrielle Jackson, a Houston-based attorney.

For women like Brittany Jones, 34, her physical appearance as a media personality is vital to her ability to make a living, and her hair is of the utmost importance. When she learned of the study on hair chemicals and their lasting effects, it piqued her interest. “If it can have that type of impact on us, then we need to think twice about what we do,” Jones said.

Lindsey Trevino, Ph.D., is one of the researchers behind the study from the City of Hope, a cancer research and treatment organization in Los Angeles, California.

“We focused on parabens, parabens are endocrine disrupting chemicals commonly used as preservatives in the hair and personal care products people use every day so that’s definitely one of the chemicals, I would recommend people look out for,” Trevino said.

The study is being conducted at City of Hope by Trevino in her laboratory, and the community project is led by Dede Teteh, DrPH, and community advisory board members Tonya Fairley, Bing Turner, Maggie Hawkins, and Tiah Tomlin-Harris. 

One in eight women in the U.S. will get breast cancer during their lifetime, and Black women are at higher risk of getting breast cancer under the age of 40 than any other racial or ethnic group.

Parabens are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are commonly used as preservatives in hair and other personal care products. The study, which is not yet published, found parabens cause breast cancer cells to grow, invade, spread and express genes linked to cancer and hormone action, and some of those effects in the laboratory were more pronounced on cell lines taken from Black women than those from white women.

In 2020, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners studied products marketed to girls and women of color and came up with a list for the most hazardous products with the highest number of chemicals linked to cancer, hormone disruption, toxicity and respiratory effects. Among the most harmful, Just for Me Shampoo, J-Lo Glow, Olay Luminous Tone Body Lotion are named. Dark and Lovely relaxer is also listed containing 83 percent of chemicals with chronic health effects found in fragrance. The Just for Me shampoo marketed toward young Black girls had the most hazardous chemicals. Sixty percent were fragrance chemicals not labeled on the product.

“Other chemicals people don’t think about all the time are fragrance, and the term fragrance is a generic term that could mean any number of chemicals usually it’s a cocktail of chemicals people don’t realize,” Trevino said.

Erinn Danielle is the owner of Simply Erinn’s hair salon in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She too is not surprised by the study revealing Black women are at higher risk of cancer because of certain hair care products. Danielle warns, the dangers extend beyond hair products in containers, but purchased hair can also contain chemicals as she found out the hard way.

“I got a little extension work one time, some cornrows, up into a bun and wrapped down on-top like a bun, and it was itchy and what-not and I didn’t think anything of it because I thought I was cute so I’m digging with a pen in it, and low and behold, when we took it out I had blisters in the middle,” Danielle said.

Danielle believes more Black women must participate in research studies to learn the short and long-term effects of using chemicals on their bodies.

“We do need to be part of studies so they can get much more information,” Danielle said.

Trevino also highlight the importance of having more diverse groups of women involved in the study and research of products. “Those studies only used white cell lines, or they only looked at white patients, so the fact that a lot of these products contain these harmful chemicals are marketed to Black women and communities of color, we think that’s why it’s important to design these studies so that we include diverse cell lines and diverse patient samples,” Trevino said.

Admittedly, many Black women risk using hair care products containing potentially dangerous chemicals because they feel pressure to meet a certain look. Jackson wears her hair natural but has dealt with pressures to conform to a certain look in her profession.

“I think societal pressures definitely impact how we as Black women do our hair whether it is deciding to have a relaxer or be natural, I’m an attorney, so even when I’m going to certain places, I think, ‘Hey should my hair be in a slicked-back bun, should I have a braid out, or should I do a wash and go?’ and I’ve had conversations over the years with my bosses and mentors on what they think is appropriate,” Jackson said.

Within the last decade, more Black women are joining the natural hair movement. A 2018 Mintel study revealed at-home relaxer sales dropped because fewer Black women are choosing to use hair relaxers and more Black women are reading the labels of hair care products to avoid certain chemicals.

Trevino says there are apps available on a smartphone to help women determine what products are harmful. “There are actually apps out there now, some of these apps include Clearya, Detox Me, EWG Healthy Living and Think Dirty,” Trevino said.

For Jones, after admitting Black women must think twice about what they do in the spirit of beauty, she says experienced hair damage from using hair products for a period before switching to a more natural hair style void of products with harmful chemicals.

“I made the decision it didn’t make sense to keep doing that because I was putting the relaxer on that little part of my hair and it was constantly breaking it,” Jones said. “Having family members and people that I know having been diagnosed with cancer, it forces you to think more seriously about what it is we’re doing to our hair,” she continued.

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