Study: Hair products for Black women contain toxic chemicals linked to breast cancer

Findings were presented during Endocrine Society’s annual meeting in Atlanta

VIDEO: Popular African American Hair Products May Contain Toxins

We women have put our hair through a lot over the decades. We add dyes to change its color, heat to change its shape and chemicals to change its texture. Unfortunately, we’re now learning some of that might damage more than just our locks.

A new study — conducted by City of Hope, a cancer hospital and research center in Southern California and presented at the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting in Atlanta this weekend — found hair care products mostly marketed to Black women contain parabens, a class of hormone-disrupting chemicals. Why is this bad? These chemicals not only raise your chance of getting breast cancer, but also disproportionately fuel the spread of cancer cells in Black women.

Although parabens are commonly used as preservatives in hair care products, they can cause breast cancer cells “to grow, invade, spread, and express genes linked to cancer and to hormone action,” researchers said in a press release. “Importantly, a survey looking for products that do not contain parabens and other harmful chemicals revealed that there are fewer paraben-free options marketed to Black women.”

Black women younger than 40 are at a higher risk of getting breast cancer than any other racial or ethnic group, and it might be because of these products, said lead researcher Lindsey S. Treviño, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Division of Health Equities and Department of Population Sciences at City of Hope.

“One reason for the higher risk of breast cancer may be exposure to harmful chemicals called endocrine-disrupting chemicals in hair and personal care products. These chemicals mimic the effects of hormones on the body,” she said in a press release.

“Black women are more likely to buy and use hair products with these types of chemicals, but we do not have a lot of data about how parabens may increase breast cancer risk in Black women,” Treviño said. “This is because Black women have not been picked to take part in most research studies looking at this link. Also, studies to test this link have only used breast cancer cell lines from white women.”

Trevino’s study tested the effects of parabens on breast cancer cells from both Black and white women. Her team found parabens caused the cancer cells from Black women to grow, an effect not seen in the samples from white women.

“These results provide new data that parabens also cause harmful effects in breast cancer cells from Black women,” Treviño said.

This isn’t the first time researchers have found toxic chemicals in women’s hair care products. A 2018 study found that in 18 products, “including hot oil treatments, leave-in conditioners and hair relaxers, a total of 45 endocrine disrupters were found, with each product containing from four to 30 of the target chemicals. Eleven of the products contained seven chemicals prohibited in the European Union or regulated under California’s Proposition 65, the 1986 act enacted to help Californians protect themselves from exposure to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects or other harm.”

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