Uncovering the dangers of hair products marketed to Black women, girls

Hair products on store shelves

June 15, 2023 – A growing body of evidence suggests that chemicals in hair relaxers—products aimed at straightening hair—and other hair products marketed to Black girls and women contain endocrine-disrupting substances linked with early menstruation, reproductive health issues, and cancer. But these remain largely unregulated in the U.S.

A June 13 article in the New York Times detailed how Black women and girls in the U.S., feeling pressure to conform to societal norms about having “neat” or “professional” hair, have for many years used a variety of methods to calm their hair, including chemical relaxers containing substances such as formaldehyde and phthalates. Black women quoted in the article— including Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Tamarra James-Todd—talked about how their scalps would burn when their hair was being treated, and how their hair would fall out in clumps afterwards.

Over the past 20 hears, James-Todd, Mark and Catherine Winkler Associate Professor of Environmental Reproductive Epidemiology, has conducted or co-authored nearly 70 studies aimed at showing the link between chemicals in hair products and serious health problems that disproportionately impact Black women and girls. In recent years, a number of other large studies—mostly conducted by other Black women who have had relaxer treatments starting when they were children—have provided additional evidence linking such products to health problems including uterine fibroids, preterm birth and infertility, and breast, ovarian, and uterine cancer.

“I’m not saying that more research isn’t needed, but there’s study after study,” said James-Todd. “At some point you have evidence enough to start making recommendations that people reduce their use of these products or don’t use them at all.” She added, “I hate to say it, but in the U.S., we don’t care. It’s about the money.”

Read the New York Times article: The Disturbing Truth About Hair Relaxers

Photo: iStock/JackF