Black women have a difficult choice when it comes to hair


Eris Eady went viral on social media this week when she saw a news story linking hair straightening chemicals to an increased risk of uterine cancer. He interrupted.

In the early 2000s, she worked as a beautician and frequently used the products to straighten her hair and that of other women. Back then, she says, cosmetology schools rarely offered lessons on how to care for black women’s natural hair; those who were interested in learning had to teach themselves.

“It was not a place where natural hair could grow. It was a tough environment to stay rooted in, no pun intended,” he says.

Eady says that every time she straightened her hair, her skin would ache. Against his mother’s advice, because he was afraid discriminated against, she stopped putting chemicals in her hair and went natural. But his short natural hair cost him: people threw homophobic insults at him.

Nearly two decades later, Eady says she worries about the health effects of this period of straightening her hair. Her anxiety increased this week when she read about new research and how black women may be affected by increased use of relaxers and other hair straightening products.

“I was on relaxers for a long time, so it could still be affecting me,” says Eady, who works as a diversity leader at a nonprofit in Cleveland, Ohio. “I am 38 years old and I have no children. So when I saw it, I was like, ‘Damn, could this be the reason’? I haven’t tried to get pregnant, but I haven’t been trying to get pregnant either.”

The study makes women who use the products question whether they should reduce their use or stop altogether.

It also reinforces the dilemma faced by many black women, some of whom use hair straightening products to conform to white beauty standards. Research has shown that black women with natural hairstyles (including afros, twists, braids, and dreadlocks) are more likely to experience racial discrimination in the workplace.

So what to do? Could going natural be hurting your career? Or straighten your hair and risk your health?

Research published Monday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found a link between the use of certain hair straighteners, such as chemical relaxers and pressing products, and an increased risk of uterine cancer, the most common cancer of the female reproductive system.

The link between hair straightening products and cases of uterine cancer was strongest for black women, who made up 7.4 percent of study participants, but nearly 60 percent of those who reported ever using a straightener.

“The bottom line is that the burden of exposure is greater among black women,” says Chandra Jackson, study author and researcher at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

The findings follow a similar study in 2019 that linked the use of permanent hair dyes and chemical hair straighteners to an increased risk of breast cancer. The risk was six times higher for black women.

Experts say a number of factors drive women to use hair straighteners, including Eurocentric beauty standards and a desire for versatility in changing hairstyles and self-expression.

Research suggests that hair straighteners contain potentially harmful chemicals.

But some black and Latina women also say they feel social pressure to wear their hair in a style that reduces microaggressions and discrimination in the workplace.

A 2020 Michigan State University study found that about 80 percent of black women say they change their hair from its natural state because they see it as essential to social and economic success.

A study conducted that year by researchers at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business found that black women with natural hair are less likely to get job interviews than white women or black women with straightened hair. Those who took part in the studies said that natural Black hairstyles are less professional.

But with the health risks associated with hair straightening chemicals, some women’s choice comes down to choosing the lesser of two evils, says Nsenga Burton, cultural critic and co-director of Emory University’s film and media management concentration.

“Black women shouldn’t have to choose to continue working and risking their lives to raise mainstream beauty standards,” says Burton. “It’s more of a catch-22, madness and discrimination.”

Burton says that while attitudes are changing and people are increasingly accepting of natural Black hairstyles, bias remains a problem in the workplace.

Burton went natural in the 2000s, and wears her hair in braids, a style that twists individual sections of natural hair together. She plans to keep her hair that way.

“If it can save your life, that’s all the more reason to do it,” he says.

Jasmine Cobb, professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University and author of “New Growth, the Art and Texture of Black Hair,” wonders if the glorification of straight hair is a holdover from a culture that has long since changed. Cobb says she stopped putting chemicals in her hair in the 2000s.

“I question whether straight hair still has social benefits in the 21st century, or whether we’re holding on to ideas about the value of straight hair from over 50 years ago,” she says.

Either way, the concept hasn’t evolved much, she says: “Society continues to promote long, flowing locks, whether the hair is straight or textured.”

The normalization of long, straight hair starts at a young age, even from childhood cartoons, says Keisha L. Bentley-Edwards, an associate professor of medicine at Duke University.

Bentley-Edwards says she cut her hair a few years ago and then switched to dreadlocks. Most people were more comfortable with her bangs – because they were long and soft – than her short hair, she says.

Many black women prefer more natural hairstyles, although these can have their drawbacks.

But one thing that has changed since the two women started wearing their hair natural nearly two decades ago is the abundance of resources available to people who choose to go natural, including new natural products and social media influencers promoting natural beauty.

And in 2019, US lawmakers wrote the CROWN Act, which prohibits racial discrimination based on hairstyles and hair textures, including braids, braids or twists. At least 18 US states, including New York, California and Maryland, have passed the law, and its name has created an open and respectful world of natural hair.

With research linking hair straightening products to health risks, legal protections can’t come fast enough, experts say.

A 2016 study by the Environmental Working Group found that one in 12 beauty and personal care products marketed to African-American women in the US contained “highly hazardous ingredients.” The report cited relaxers, hair dyes and bleaches as the most dangerous products.

“Evidence on the chemical impact of hair straightening is growing and is beginning to outweigh the supposed social benefits attributed to hair straightening,” says Cobb. “The scourge of cancer overwhelms the stress of meeting changing social norms around beauty.”

Some women say they straighten their hair for reasons that have nothing to do with conforming to a specific beauty standard.

Mercy Owusu, a Ghanaian NGO consultant based in Espoo, Finland, says she regularly applies relaxer to her hair to make it easier to manage.

“Most of the time I like to have it in a ponytail and I can’t do that with my natural hair – it won’t look neat because I have really hard hair,” she says.

Mercy Owusu

Owusu says he hasn’t paid much attention in the past to research linking hair chemicals to cancer. Part of the reason she continues to straighten her hair is the lack of resources to manage her natural hair, she says.

But after learning about the latest research, Owusu says she plans to cut back on the number of times she relaxes her hair. And she won’t use chemicals on her 8-year-old daughter’s hair, she says.

Cobb, however, disagrees with the idea that black hair cannot be managed without hair care products.

“Why do we think black hair, in its natural state, is unmanageable?” he says. “Hair straightening costs time and money, especially maintenance. When we say straight hair is more manageable, we’re discounting the costs and physical effects associated with a regular straightening regimen.”

Bentley-Edwards, the Duke professor, says the latest research should give black women pause, especially those with additional risk factors, such as a family history of reproductive cancer. She said that in a 2011 study, researchers also found a link between hair relaxers and uterine fibroids, or tumors.

“There needs to be more understanding of how hair straightening ingredients interact with the reproductive system and other aspects of health,” she says. “What are the biological mechanisms at play?”

All the women CNN spoke to say the new study’s findings are a major concern, for many reasons.

And the research adds another layer of complication for black women in America, who sometimes have to make compromises in order to move forward.

“I don’t think we’ve ever taken these studies seriously,” says Eady. “We did what we had to do to survive. And sometimes that means changing who we are in order to enroll in life. It’s a survival tool.”