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What's the link between hair relaxers and fibroids?
Hair relaxer, or chemical straightener, use is common in the black community. However, chemical straighteners can have side effects including damaging the hair shaft, scalp inflammation, and hair loss.
The Study of Environment, Lifestyle and Fibroids in the USA1 found that nine out of ten of the African American women who took part had used chemical relaxers or straightening products in their lifetime.
Frequent usage, of more than once a year, peaked as girls approached mid teenage years, from around one in 10 at age five, to seven in 10 at age 15, and then three in ten at adulthood. Only around two in ten 15-year-olds rarely or never used relaxers, whereas that increased to six in 10 of adults.
Fibroids are common in the black community
Fibroids are non-cancerous growths in the muscular middle layer of the womb. They respond to oestrogen and progesterone hormones. They are a significant cause of disease in women of childbearing age. Some problems women with fibroids encounter include:
- Heavy periods.
- Painful periods.
- Pelvic pain.
- Bladder problems.
- Low red blood cell count.
- Fertility issues.
Although they are commonly found in women of all ethnicities, black women are three times more likely to be diagnosed with fibroids compared to white women. A study found around eight out ten black women aged 35-49 had fibroids.
Black women tend to:
- Develop fibroids at a younger age.
- Have a greater number of fibroids.
- Are more likely to have severe pelvic pain with fibroids.
- Are more likely to be admitted to hospital with fibroid complications.
- Are more likely to have a hysterectomy - womb removal - due to fibroids.
What makes fibroids grow?
Fibroids are a condition fuelled by oestrogen dominance. This can occur when there is an imbalance in:
- The amount of oestrogen the body is producing.
- The amount of oestrogen like substances the body is exposed to.
- The amount of oestrogen that the body can get rid of.
Endocrine disrupting compounds can also disrupt oestrogen balance.
An endocrine disrupting compound (EDC) is something that interferes with the production, release, transport, metabolism (chemical reactions), binding, or clearance of natural blood found hormones. These are responsible for body balance, reproduction, and development.
Hormones are chemicals that influence different functions in the body. They carry messages through the blood to parts of the body, with signals telling your body what to do, and when, by activating hormone receptors.
EDCs do more than just act on hormone receptors. They can act through other receptors or cause problems with pathways involved in hormone life-cycle. They are many compounds that can be natural or synthetic that affect our hormone systems.
Does relaxer use link with fibroid development?
The Black Women’s Health Study in the USA2 followed 23,580 premenopausal women to see who developed fibroids. It found that women who had used hair relaxer were 17% more likely to develop fibroids compared to women who never had. Of the women who used hair relaxer for 10 years or longer, the risk of fibroids increased with frequency of hair relaxer use per year. These results suggest there is an association with hair relaxer use and fibroids risk.
They showed that duration of relaxer use and number of burns was associated with a risk of developing fibroids.
The study showed the following behaviours were associated with increase in the risk of uterine fibroids:
- Using relaxers at all, even if just once.
- Using relaxers for longer duration.
- Increased frequency of relaxer use.
- Increased number of scalp burns with relaxer use.
Chemical relaxer use has been associated with endometrial (womb) cancer.
Women who tend to use relaxers may find it tricky to find alternative hair care products
Even if black women avoid relaxers, many other hair care products they regularly use contain similar, or other hormone disrupting compounds, to what is found in relaxers.
A study in California3 found that despite knowing the potential harmful effects of hair product use, college educated black women continued to use potentially harmful hair products because hair was strongly tied to their self-worth and identity. The products helped them achieve styles associated with societal acceptance and self-identity.
Tips for protecting hormone health when choosing hair products
It is difficult for consumers to choose hair products as there are so many different chemicals to look out for with very complicated names. Apps such as Think Dirty or Yuka can be useful for screening products to check their toxic load.
Also, there are key groups to look out for, so check the product label and packaging to see that it does not contain - or is free of - the following groups.
- Bisphenol A.
A combination of common chemicals including phthalates, fragrances, parabens, and chemical UV filters are likely to have a greater effect combined than each one on its own. This could include a built-up oestrogen like effect on the body. There are many other risk factors for fibroid development including:
- Increased abdominal fat.
- Low vitamin D.
- Alcohol use.
- Greater body weight.
- Family history of fibroids.
- Food additive consumption.
- Increased alcohol consumption.
- Poor levels of physical activity.
- Heavy coffee or caffeine intake.
- Low fruit and vegetable intake.
Pressure from society often pushes black people to use relaxers without fully understanding the risks. Dr Rephainah Mallet, a UK based obstetrics and gynaecology specialist says: "The beauty industry targets black people in a way that disadvantages them, as there is a western influence of beauty leaning towards straight hair."
Dr Mallet says that some ingredients that affect the endocrine system have undisclosed chemicals listed as fragrance on ingredients lists. As all the risks of relaxers are not explicitly explained, some people assume they are safe without being properly informed.
Dr Mallet says: "With children on the box, people assume it is safe. We assume our laws keeps products safe. Things we apply on the skin and scalp are absorbed which can affect the sensitive endocrine system."
Black women who are already at an increased risk of fibroids should understand the facts and issues before deciding if they use relaxers to chemically straighten their own or their children’s hair. It is particularly important that teenagers understand the risks as they tend to use relaxers most frequently.
- NIEHS: The Study of Environment, Lifestyle and Fibroids in the US.
- The Black Women’s Health Study in the USA.
- Johnson PI, Favela K, Jarin J, et al: ARTICLE Chemicals of concern in personal care products used by women of color in three communities of California.
- Wise LA, Laughlin-Tommaso SK: Epidemiology of Uterine Fibroids-From Menarche to Menopause.
- Templeman C, Marshall SF, Clarke CA, et al: Risk factors for surgically removed fibroids in a large cohort of teachers. Fertil Steril.
- Pavone D, Clemenza S, Sorbi F, Fambrini M, Petraglia F: Epidemiology and Risk Factors of Uterine Fibroids. Best Pract Res Clin Obstet Gynaecol.
- Helm JS, Nishioka M, Brody JG, Rudel RA, Dodson RE: Measurement of endocrine disrupting and asthma-associated chemicals in hair products used by Black women. Environ Res.
- Cosmetics and Personal Care Products and Women’s Health: A Closer Look at Menstruation, Fibroids, Endometriosis, and Reproductive Health.
- Chang CJ, O’brien KM, Keil AP, et al: Use of Straighteners and Other Hair Products and Incident Uterine Cancer.