Dark Hair Dye and Chemical Relaxers Linked To Breast Cancer

The study was the first to find a significant increase in breast cancer risk among Black women who used dark shades of hair dye and white women who used chemical relaxers.


(Reuters) — African American and white women who regularly chemically straightened their hair or dyed it dark brown or black had an elevated risk of breast cancer, recent research suggests.

“I would be concerned about darker hair dye and hair straighteners,” epidemiologist Tamarra James-Todd said after reviewing the report in Carcinogenesis. “We should really think about using things in moderation and really try to think about being more natural.”

“Just because something is on the market does not necessarily mean it’s safe for us,” she said in a phone interview. James-Todd, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, was not involved with the new research.

The study of 4,285 African American and white women was the first to find a significant increase in breast cancer risk among Black women who used dark shades of hair dye and white women who used chemical relaxers.

Black women who reported using dark hair dye had a 51 percent increased risk of breast cancer compared to Black women who did not, while white women who reported using chemical relaxers had a 74 percent increased risk of breast cancer, the study found.

The risk of breast cancer was even higher for white women who regularly dyed their hair dark shades and also used chemical relaxers, and it more than doubled for white dual users compared to white women who used neither dark dye nor chemical straighteners.

The association between relaxers and breast cancer in white women surprised lead author Adana Llanos, an epidemiologist at the Rutgers School of Public Health in Piscataway, N.J., although she worried enough about the safety of hair relaxers in African American women like herself to stop using them years ago.

“A lot of people have asked me if I’m telling women not to dye their hair or not to use relaxers,” she said in a phone interview. “I’m not saying that. What I think is really important is we need to be more aware of the types of exposures in the products we use.”

The study included adult women from New York and New Jersey, surveyed from 2002 through 2008, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, plus women of similar age and race but without a history of cancer.

Women were asked if they had ever used permanent hair dye at least twice a year for at least a year. They were also asked if they had ever chemically relaxed or straightened their hair for at least a year.

While the vast majority — 88 percent — of Blacks had used chemicals to relax their hair, only 5 percent of whites reported using relaxers.

For dark hair dye, the numbers flipped, though the differences were not as dramatic. While 58 percent of whites said they regularly dyed their hair dark shades, only 30 percent of Blacks did.

The most striking results showed increased risk in the minority of Black women who used dark hair dye and white women who used chemical relaxers.

Black women who used chemical straighteners and white women who used dark hair dyes were also at higher risk for breast cancer, but that might have been due to chance. James-Todd said that because so many of the Black women used chemical relaxers and so many of the white women used dark hair dye, links would have been hard to detect.

There’s no reason to believe that chemical relaxers and hair dyes would increase the risk for women of one race and not of another, she said. She believes the association stems not from genetics but from cultural norms.

It could also boil down to products, and women from different cultures might use different straighteners and dyes. But the study did not ask women to specify the products they used.

The study included the largest population of African American women thus far examined for breast cancer risk and dark hair dye, according to the research team.

Previous studies have shown that long-term users of dark dyes have a four-fold increased risk of fatal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and fatal multiple myeloma, the authors write. Prior research also has associated dark hair dye use with an increased risk of bladder cancer.

A 2016 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that breast cancer rates are generally similar for Black and white women, at around 122 new cases for every 100,000 women per year, although Black women with the disease are more likely to die from it.

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  • I truly believe this study. I would use dark hair dye more than twice a year and I had breast cancer.

    • Charity Dell

      TONYA DAKARI–It is a possibility that the hair dye contributed to breast cancer.
      There are OTHER factors that contribute to breast cancer, including:

      1. The aluminum salts found in antiperspirants. Many women have switched to deodorants without anti-perspirant chemicals.
      2. The hormone-fed meat and poultry Americans consume; many people have switched to organically-grown meat
      and poultry products. Others have also gone vegan to avoid carcinogens (such as mercury) in fish and shellfish.
      3. The chemicals in hair relaxers and perms combined with the dyes in hair color.
      4. The hormone concentrations in birth control products, and other products for women.
      For example, estrogen in high concentrations fuels both ovarian and uterine cancers in post-menopausal women.
      5. Exposure to certain pesticides used in gardening and agriculture.
      6. Carcinogenic chemicals found in cosmetics, creams, shampoos, grooming products, etc. Hydroquinone, a
      skin lightener in many skin creams, is BANNED in Europe because hydroquinone is a carcinogen.

      My own mother battled breast cancer in her seventies, as a result of taking Hormone Replacement Therapy
      pills prescribed by her physician (he was NOT a gynecologist.) She took herself off the medication a few
      years before she got breast cancer. Physicians in the early 2000’s stopped prescribing a particular type
      of Hormone Replacement Therapy(HRT) and changes were made to the chemical compositions of many
      contraceptive products.

      I also had a friend who contracted breast cancer in her late fifties and
      passed away at age 62 in 2009. She told me that she believed her breast cancer was through exposure to chemicals
      her father was exposed to and brought home, as he worked as a landscaper for decades.

      I hope you are now cancer-free and living your life well!

  • Charity Dell

    This is a good article with interesting information. A few reflections:

    1. Multitudes of white women of various ethnicities use RELAXERS–many more than the
    so-called 5% “reported”. White women tend to use PERMS for straightening and relaxing
    their hair. These perms WORK THE SAME WAY as the relaxers used by African, African-American,
    Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latina, Afro-Brazilian and Latina women.

    2. The research does not reveal how CURLY PERMS/TEXTURE PERMS
    affect women of various ethnicities. Millions of girls and women ALSO
    get perms to add curls and waves to their hair, or re-shape frizzy hair into
    corkscrew patterns. S-curls and Jheri curls were popular at one time,
    but they have come back, especially for people whose hair is close to
    corkscrew texture, and/or very wavy or wavy-to-frizzy.

    3. Since young female children in all ethnic groups tend to get all kinds of HAIR PROCESSES–
    including RELAXERS and CURLING/TEXTURIZING PERMS–from a young age, this should
    also be an important area of research.

    4. There was a removal of carcinogens from black and brown dyes some years ago.
    Pharmaceutical companies should continually revise their chemical additives to
    eliminate carcinogenic elements from their dyes.

    5. More research needs to be done on the effects of OTHER color processes, such as:

    a. Cellophanes;
    b. Highlights;
    c. Streaking;
    d. Henna with color treatments;
    e. Tipping;

    and the repeated application of “rainbow shades” to human hair.
    Researchers need to determine if applying intense hair colors
    also sets women up for breast cancers.

    • Tanya Hutchins

      Relaxers and (straight) perms are the same thing. Those terms are used interchangeably, depending upon how you were raised.

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