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Hair Straightening Chemicals Linked to Cancer—But Which Chemical?

Unveiling the impact of chemical hair straighteners on black women's health. Explore the historical roots, legal concerns, and the call for accountability.

Mass Torts / January 13, 2023

By Chelsie Green

For many centuries, societal beauty standards have dictated trendy styles in fashion, cosmetics, and, especially, hair care for women. As early as the 1900s, one trend in particular targeted the manageability of thicker, coarser, and/or textured hair. More specifically, black women’s hair was deemed unkempt, unprofessional, and, overall, just not welcome in society. From that centuries-old mantra that straighter hair was the acceptable manner of wear, came the creation of a line of hair care products geared to “tame” curly or coiled texturized hair. These products are chemical hair straighteners, also known as hair relaxers.

Historically, the idea that straighter hair textures were “good hair” began during slavery and permeates throughout generations to this day. This narrative drove black men and women to extremely hazardous lengths to achieve Eurocentric beauty standards. Although alternative methods to chemical hair straighteners existed, like pressing combs or hot combs, these techniques were temporary fixes. For example, kinky curly hair that is pressed would shrivel or shrink up if ever in contact with water or humidity, returning to its natural state. A more permanent solution was sought and ultimately created in the 1900s by Garrett Augustus Morgan, an African American inventor. Morgan paved the way for what is now a multi-million dollar industry.

Chemical Straightener Use

A relaxer is a chemical treatment, usually in the form of a cream or lotion, that straightens curly/coarse hair by breaking down the bonds in the hair shaft. To achieve a straighter look, the relaxer is applied to the root or base of the hair and left in for a period of time to allow the chemicals to fully take effect. Once set, the chemicals in relaxers break down the protein structure in curly hair (ultimately damaging it), resulting in a straighter, less full look to the hair. There are three types of relaxers:

• Lye-based relaxers: Lye relaxers are considered the harshest type of relaxer with an active ingredient of sodium hydroxide.

• No lye relaxers: This relaxer is considered less harsh compared to key-based relaxers and has an active ingredient of potassium hydroxide or calcium hydroxide.

• Keratin treatments: This treatment is a semi- permanent treatment that will smooth and straighten hair.

The use of chemical hair straighteners or relaxers usually begins as young as age five in young black and brown girls, continues throughout adolescence into teenage years and adulthood for some.

Relaxers are typically reapplied every four to six weeks, depending on how quickly the hair grows, scalp sensitivity, and overall need. The use of chemical hair straighteners usually results in scalp lesions and burns, which in turn allows the harmful mixture of the relaxer to seep into the body.

Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals

Recently, scientific studies have linked exposure to certain chemicals in hair relaxers to uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, uterine leiomyoma, and more. Many ingredients in chemical hair straighteners are considered endocrine- disrupting chemicals or EDCs. The endocrine system, also referred to as the hormone system, is made up of organs called glands. These glands produce and release different hormones that target specific systems of the body. Hormones act as our body’s chemical messengers. When the active ingredients in chemical hair straighteners or relaxers seep into the body from scalp lesions and/or burns, these chemicals disrupt the hormones within our system, hence the name endocrine disrupting chemicals.

The endocrine system is vital to the body’s natural hormone production, such as estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, and androgen, which regulate critical biological processes.

One important system regulated by the endocrine system is the body’s reproductive organs. The endocrine system maintains the growth and function of the reproductive system. When chemicals or chemical mixtures, such as phthalates, DEHP (form of phthalates), formaldehydes, and lye, such as those found in hair relaxers, interact with our body’s natural hormones, significant adverse health effects can occur. This includes infertility, cancer and immunodeficiencies. Chemical hair straighteners are known to contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which has been reported to cause uterine cancer, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and even breast cancer. Overall, manufacturers of hair relaxers put profit before the safety of women all over the world, and our aim should be to hold those responsible accountable for their actions.

Manufacturers Of Chemical Hair Straighteners

There are many different brands of chemical hair straighteners. Some of the prominent brands include Dark & Lovely, Just For Me, Olive Oil or Organic Root Stimulator (“ORS”), Motions, Mizani, Crème of Nature, Soft & Beautiful, African Pride, and many more. Manufacturers of these chemical hair straighteners are located across the United States and internationally. Dark & Lovely was an original Chicago creation of Carson Products until the late 90s when SoftSheen and Carson Products were acquired by one of the world’s largest cosmetic companies, L’Oréal, USA. L’Oréal is easily leading the beauty industry, especially with Revlon’s recent filings of bankruptcy. SoftSheen and Carson were the largest African American beauty-owned companies before being acquired by L’Oréal.

Popular brands Just For Me, TCB, Soft & Beautiful, Motions, and African Pride are all manufactured by Strength of Nature, LLC. Strength Of Nature is an international hair care company with product lines marketed for all different hair types. Strength Of Nature was known for marketing their no-lye-based products as a safer alternative to lye-based hair relaxers. For example, Just For Me pictured a young black girl on the front of their box with straight hair, innocently posing, but ultimately, these products were no safer than any of their counterparts, which just gave consumers a false sense of security as to the chemicals within these hair relaxers.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of chemical hair straightener manufacturers. Other major manufacturers of chemical hair straighteners include Namaste Laboratories, Dabur International, as well as Dabur, USA. Ultimately, black Americans—more specifically, black women—were coerced into subscribing to Eurocentric beauty standards due to the marketing by these manufacturers, which continued to market and sell a chemical composition that ultimately led to many black women being diagnosed with uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, endometriosis, and more.

Legal Mechanism

There are laws and regulations that must be complied with when placing cosmetics into the stream of commerce. Unfortunately for consumers, these manufacturers have adhered to loopholes within the laws and regulations to continue manufacture, distribution, and sale of these harmful products. The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (“FD&C”) was passed by Congress in 1938, in an effort to regulate products put into the market, including hair care products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) were tasked with overseeing compliance of the FD&C Act. The FD&C Act forbids the manufacture or distribution of food, drugs, medical devices, and cosmetics that are altered or misbranded. Although there is no current law that requires manufacturers of cosmetics to submit their safety data to the FDA, it is unlawful to place an ingredient into a cosmetic (i.e. hair product) that causes the cosmetic product to be harmful when used as intended.

The federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act is intended to promote and protect public health by ensuring safety, efficacy, and truthfulness of labeling of products in commerce. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the cosmetic manufacturers to assess the safety of their products and warn of any potential hazards associated its products, which they have failed to do.


The deep-rooted need for validation or acceptance in society has caused entire communities of people to go to extreme measures to achieve Eurocentric beauty standards. The use of hair relaxers by black and brown communities was a protection mechanism in hopes of retaining job security and preventing racial discrimination, but in the end, it led to widespread larger health concerns. Concerns with racial disparity in the healthcare system are not novel, and it’s no surprise that scientific studies are linking chemicals in cosmetic products to disproportionate adverse health effects in black and brown communities. As Malcolm X said, the black woman is the most unprotected, disrespected, and neglected person in America. One step towards breaking this stigma and rectifying the harm caused is holding these manufacturers responsible and removing these products from shelves.

Crafted on the Narrow Land