Relaxers are a chemical treatment that loosens curl patterns and straightens afro hair. To keep the hair straight, every two to three months, the chemicals have to be reapplied, preferably by a hairdresser, though there are do-it-yourself home kits available. 


 For many years, women (particularly black women) have used these products, often with alluring names such as ‘Dark and Lovely.’  It is arguable that the availability of these products and their use contributes to the societal pressure on black women to adhere to the European beauty standard of straight hair to look ‘professional’. 


The main issue with relaxers used to be that they damaged black women’s naturally beautiful, curly hair and that it contributed to destroying many women’s self-esteem. However, from the findings of the ‘Sister Study’ conducted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in the USA, there appear to be even more serious consequences to using these straightening products.


The study of 34,000 female subjects aged 35-74 who didn’t have breast cancer, found that the chemicals in these products have ‘endocrine disrupting and carcinogenic properties’ causing a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer. The findings also linked the straightening products to a rare uterine cancer.  The women in the study were monitored for around 11 years during which 378 uterine cancer cases were diagnosed. 

“We estimated that 1.64% of women who never used hair straighteners would go on to develop uterine cancer by the age of 70; but for frequent users, that risk goes up to 4.05%,” said Alexandra White PhD, head of the NIEHS Environment and Cancer Epidemiology group and lead author on the study.


The subjects were mostly white making the black sample size too small to determine an association between black women and the cancer. However, the authors still noted that black women were more likely to get these cancers due to the “higher prevalence of use, initiation at younger ages” and the “more toxic formulations.” 


This is concerning as there seems to be a current spike in black women going back to relaxers, with the TikTok hashtag #relaxedhair garnering 186.8m views. This, along with parents not knowing how to handle their children’s curly hair and therefore resorting to relaxers means these health risks are likely to continue to affect the next generation.