Hair Relaxers Harming Black Women Go Largely Unregulated

By Elaine Herscher, Senior Editor

One Harvard scientist believes she’s found an important clue to health disparities among African American women: hair relaxers.

Although having been found to cause reproductive disorders and cancers, hair relaxers are still being marketed aggressively to Black women and the federal government has done little to regulate them, the New York Times reported.

Dr. Tamarra James-Todd, a Harvard professor who has been studying the harmful effects of the chemicals in these products, has been sounding the alarm for 20 years.

Now others are beginning to take notice. “A robust body of scientific evidence has now shown that straighteners and other hair products marketed to Black girls and women have

been linked to endocrine-disrupting substances associated with the early onset of menstruation and many of the reproductive-health issues that follow, from uterine fibroids, preterm birth and infertility to breast, ovarian and uterine cancer,” the Times reports. “Many of these hormone-health-related problems are more common in Black women than in other women, including an aggressive form of breast cancer that contributes to a death rate from the disease that is 28 percent higher than the rate for White women.”

Many of the substances in these products that are banned in Europe, including

formaldehyde, are still allowed by the U.S. federal Food and Drug Administration. Even the ingredients listed on the package can’t be trusted. Silent Spring, an environmental health research organization, examined 18 different hair products and found dozens of hormone-disrupting chemicals. But 84 percent of those toxic ingredients weren’t even listed on the packaging.

“This means that even as the evidence is increasingly harder to ignore or deny, consumers remain shockingly unprotected, leading to an entirely preventable continuing public health crisis. Most of the studies have been published in science journals that never reach the general public. Many Black people have quietly wondered for years whether hair relaxers were safe, but burning scalps and even hair loss have been normalized as the price of desirably straight hair,” according to the Times. The FDA maintains there is not enough research to ban the chemicals.

“I’m not saying that more research isn’t needed, but there’s study after study. 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,” James-Todd said. “I hate to say it, but in the U.S., we don’t care. It’s about the money.”