Study suggests link between chemical hair straighteners and chances of uterine cancer

Correction: The NewsHour incorrectly cited the NIEHS as the National Institute of Environmental Health Safety. Instead, it is the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Several women diagnosed with uterine cancer are now suing L'Oreal and other cosmetic companies after a recent study tied the illness to chemical hair straightening products. Dr. Kemi Doll joined Amna Nawaz to discuss the study and the concerns it has raised.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Several women diagnosed with uterine cancer are now suing L'Oreal and other cosmetic companies after a recent study tied the illness to chemical hair straightening products.

    Amna Nawaz has more on the study and the concerns it's raised.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, this study conducted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Safety found that women who reported frequent use of hair straightening products were more than twice as likely to develop uterine cancer than women who did not.

    We spoke to several women who've been chemically straightening their hair since childhood and are now concerned for their health.

  • Deja Dorsey, California:

    For as long as I can remember, I have always had my hair in some form of perm or relaxer. Honestly, I believe I got my first perm like super early. I want to say like probably like 6 or 7 years old.

  • Kimberley Lee, Indiana:

    I was probably maybe 10 or 11 years old. That was a parental decision. My mother had a chemical relaxer placed in my hair. She was a working parent, a single mother. And I'm certain in her thought process was that a chemical relaxer would make it easier for her to be able to care for my hair.

  • Cecily Jones, Georgia:

    I think, for Black women especially to assimilate into corporate America or into white America as a whole, we were told we had to straighten our hair.

    It is a tough decision, but we think about everything. We're considering all the factors. And just know it's not an easy decision. It is a tough decision. And it has so many layers. I have heard the risks growing up, it is scary. To be honest, it is scary, hearing about cancer risk, not necessarily uterine. I think I have heard breast cancer risk over the past few years, just having those chemicals in our body for decades.

  • Deja Dorsey:

    It was actually pretty sad to know that it is a risk that myself, my mother, other Black women can have. But, then again, on the other side, everything that we do in life seemingly can cause cancer. So it's just kind of another thing added to the list.

  • Kimberley Lee:

    I do think it's really important for these companies and also any federal agencies like the FDA that might have oversight over these types — over production of these types of chemicals to put really clear warning labels on all such type products.

  • Deja Dorsey:

    Of course, if you have the opportunity to stop it and to prevent it, you should. And I do appreciate the research and the tests coming out that — to bring more awareness.

  • Cecily Jones:

    I hope it gets better, and I do think it's getting better. But we had to go through a lot to get to where we're at now. We had to go through a lot. And it isn't fair. To be frank, it is not fair at all.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We take a closer look now at hair straighteners and the ties to uterine cancer.

    Dr. Kemi Doll is an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. She joins us now.

    Dr. Doll, welcome to the "NewsHour," and thank you for joining us.

    You heard what those women there had to say. And we want to point out this is one study, just one study we're talking about that looks at that connection. So what are the limits of a study like this? And what does it tell us for sure.

    Dr. Kemi Doll, University of Washington School of Medicine: There are a few things to know in terms of the limits of this study, which is,, it was a survey study. So we're basing it on women reporting what they have been exposed to.

    We don't have actual information on what kind of straighteners were used, to what extent they were on the scalp, a lot of questions that we know, as Black women, using different hair straightener products, they are not created equal. So we don't really have an understanding of the strength or the chemical makeup of these straighteners that women reported using.

    The other thing that's important about this study is that it was originally a group to study breast cancer. And so every woman in this study had to have a sister who had — a biological sister who had breast cancer. So that's not necessarily the — as similar to the general public.

    And so it just adds — it raises some questions as to how generalizable this is. So there are limitations. On the other hand, this is a very important study. I think it asks a very important question and starts to have us have more focus around the idea of being able to understand what's really driving, what's really causing uterine cancer in this country.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to point out we used the word frequent when we talked about frequent use of hair straighteners. That was defined in this as four times in one year.

    So, the big question here, Dr. Doll, is how worried, how worried should any woman be who is watching this report, seeing the study and has previously used hair straightening products? What is the risk?

  • Dr. Kemi Doll:

    I want women to know that this is — this study is the beginning of this question.

    There are so many more questions to answer about what the link is and if it's something that's a causal link, or something that's an association. But, most importantly, women need to know the risks of uterine cancer and the signs of uterine cancer.

    Overall, regardless of whether you use hair straighteners or not, the risk of uterine cancer in this country is 3 percent, or about one in 32 women by age 80. And the symptoms that drive uterine cancer that allow us to diagnose it early is when there is postmenopausal bleeding or vaginal bleeding after the time of menopause.

    Knowing that and being aware of your symptoms is what's going to make the difference in terms of getting a uterine cancer diagnosis and ultimately your outcome.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Are those rates the same for everyone, though? Are — the same across all groups of women? And would you recommend that people stop using these products if they're concerned?

  • Dr. Kemi Doll:

    Great question.

    So, the rates by race, if we look at Black women or white women, the likelihood of getting a uterine cancer is actually very similar, which is why the study is interesting, because Black women use hair straighteners much more commonly. We don't see that Black women have twice the rate of uterine cancer in this country.

    However, I would say to a woman using hair straighteners, if you have already been looking for a reason to stop using hair straighteners, if that was already something that was in your plan, I think this is a great reason to pause and say, if something else works for me, let me stop using hair straighteners.

    If it's something that's really important to you, if it's something that's important to your sense of beauty, something that you prefer, I would say that you want to be really aware of what kind of chemicals are in the hair straighteners used on your head.

    And then you can do some research to look at whether those have been related to cancer or not. Some of them have, and some of them haven't. So I think that that's responsibly what we can say right now. It is reasonable to have some concern. And if you can stop and you desire to anyway, it's totally reasonable to go natural.

    I'm a big natural fan.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Doll, you heard a few of the women mention the pressure, the beauty standards pressure, the beauty — and the pressure to conform to traditionally European beauty standards as part of all of this.

    Often, when we talk about Black women's health, and this is well-documented, we do find this very firm connection to structural racism, whether you're talking about maternal mortality or pain management. Do you see that connection here?

  • Dr. Kemi Doll:


    In fact, that's one of my questions as a researcher in this space is that, is what we're seeing, hair straightener use, in this study actually a proxy or a sign of women who were more at risk to be pressured in their environments to conform, women who didn't have a choice about whether they had natural hair or not, who were more likely to be in those scenarios where straightening their hair made a tangible economic difference?

    Those women are probably more at risk of the pressures of structural racism. And so the question is, is it those pressures of structural racism causing weathering and stress on the body or the hair straightener itself? So I think that it's absolutely related. And it has to do with why we need more studies that focus on what's going on with Black women in particular, because the experiences that we have are different.

    And we already know that the diseases and the outcomes can be different. And so asking these questions is so critical.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Dr. Kemi Doll of the University of Washington School of Medicine joining us tonight.

    Thank you for your time.

  • Dr. Kemi Doll:

    Thank you so much.

Listen to this Segment