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Myth Buster: Moderate Use of Hair Relaxer does not Predispose Black Women to Breast Cancer


Health reports across the demographics in the U.S. glaringly suggest that Black women are more likely to develop breast cancers than their White counterparts. A new study quashes this distorted view of the data and strongly argues that the lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is equal between Black and White women.

The study seems to contradict the widespread belief that hair relaxers (straighteners) and leave-in conditioners – popular with Black women than White women – predisposes a woman to specific subtypes of cancers such as the estrogen receptor (ER) negative tumors. Hence the popular myth that hair relaxers and leave-in conditioners predispose Black women to breast cancer.


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The Devil in the Details

The estrogen receptor (ER) negative tumors are commonly diagnosed at a young age, and data shows they have a higher mortality rate. Although, it has been established that the hair relaxers and leave-in condition do indeed contain compounds that disrupt the estrogen and endocrine system in a woman’s body. There have not enough epidemiological studies into the relationship between hair relaxers and the development of the said type of cancer in Black women.

More recent research seems to discredit that belief completely. However, it points out that excessive use the lye-containing hair products predisposes all women to the development of ER+ breast cancer.

While there is biologic plausibility that exposure to some components contained in hair relaxers might increase breast cancer risk, the evidence from epidemiologic studies to date continues to be inconsistent.” – said Kimberly Bertrand, the lead author of the study report and an ScD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and an epidemiologist at the BU Slone Epidemiology Center.

Bertrand and the team’s study was partly informed by data from the Black Women’s Health Study (BWHS). The BWHS is a prospective group study set up back in 1995, which run a survey involving some 59,000 Black women volunteers aged between 21-69 years from across the U.S. The women filled out a questionnaire seeking to compare the incidences of breast cancers to the level of hair relaxers used by the women, whether they were heavy or light users, versus whether or not they have developed breast cancer.


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The findings show no link between moderate use of hair relaxers and Black women developing breast cancer.

Overall, our results are generally reassuring: we found no clear evidence that hair relaxer use is associated with breast cancer risk for most women. However, there was some evidence the heaviest users of lye-containing products – those who used these products at least seven times a year for 15 or more years, which represented approximately 20 percent of women in our study – had about a 30 percent increased risk of estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) breast cancer.” – Further said Bertrand.

Wrapping up

When it comes to health research, Black women are often underrepresented. Therefore, the real reason for the disparities in breast cancer development between White women and Black women could not (yet) be well studied. However, according to the finding mentioned above, it cannot be attributed to moderate use of hair relaxers.

Further research is needed to establish the cause of the disparity and prevent more women from falling victim to breast cancer.

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