More than a million Americans are diagnosed with cancer every year. Unfortunately, because there are so many different types of cancer and various risk factors for each, it can be hard to know exactly what may put you in harm’s way. But researchers are steadily trying to uncover the things that make us most vulnerable—and a new study is highlighting one popular beauty product that appears to spike the risk of a particular type of cancer by 155 percent. Read on to find out what it is, and whether you need to rethink your beauty routine.
Compared to other types of cancer, such as breast or colon cancer, gynecologic cancers are relatively uncommon, affecting about 100,000 women in the U.S. each year, according to Yale Medicine. But the rate of uterine cancer—the most common gynecologic cancer—among women in the U.S. has been increasing recently. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 65,950 new cases of cancer of the uterus will occur in 2022.
“We do see a rise in diagnosis of uterine cancer,” Kristina Butler, MD, a gynecologic oncologist confirmed during a Mayo Clinic Q&A podcast. “And we feel like that is because there’s also a rise of some other illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity, which are risk factors for uterine cancer. And because we’re seeing more people experience those types of illnesses, uterine cancer rates are rising.”
But now, a new study offers another explanation for the rise of this previously uncommon cancer.
One popular beauty product might be partly to blame for the recent rise of uterine cancer, according to a new study. Researchers at the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) sought to discover the impact of different hair products on this type of cancer, publishing their findings on Oct. 17 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The study followed nearly 34,000 adults with a uterus for almost 11 years and found a substantial link between chemical hair straighteners and uterine cancer.
The study says subjects who used a chemical straightening product more than four times within the 12 months before they were surveyed were 155 percent more likely to be diagnosed with uterine cancer, compared to those who had never used this kind of straightening treatment. “These findings are the first epidemiologic evidence of association between use of straightening products and uterine cancer,” the researchers wrote.
According to the study, the increased risk of chemical hair straighteners on uterine cancer was found among women from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. However, researchers fear that Black women might be disproportionately affected. That’s because roughly 60 percent of study participants who reported using hair straighteners identified as Black women.
“We don’t want to panic people,” Alexandra White, the study’s lead author and the head of the environment and cancer epidemiology group of the NIEHS, told The New York Times. “One could make a decision to reduce this chemical exposure, but we also want to acknowledge that there is a lot of pressure on women, especially Black women, to have straight hair. It’s not an easy decision to not do this.”
This also lines up with recent research showing that although rates of uterine cancer have been rising among all women in the U.S., Black women are facing a higher disparity in terms of subsequent deaths. Data from March 2022 indicated that the rate of uterine cancer mortality among Black women is twice that of white women. As The New York Times explained, this gap is “one of the largest racial disparities reported for any cancer.”
The NIEHS researchers said they conducted their study based on the idea that “hair products may contain hazardous chemicals with endocrine-disrupting and carcinogenic properties.” But according to their findings, only chemical hair straighteners were linked with increased rates of cancer of the uterus. “Use of other hair products, including dyes and permanents or body waves, was not associated with incident uterine cancer,” the researchers wrote.
The potential impact of chemical hair straighteners on this type of cancer might not be surprising to some, as it has also been linked with other similar forms of cancer. “We’ve seen this association between hair straighteners and breast, ovarian and now uterine cancer—it’s been a consistent finding among hormonally driven female reproductive cancers,” White explained to The New York Times.