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New Study Shows Hair Care Products Targeted to Black Community Contain Harmful Chemicals

The Silent Spring Institute measured concentrations of estrogen-mimickers and other chemicals that disrupt the hormone system in hair products marketed to black women. They tested 18 popular products and detected between 4 and 30 of these chemicals in each one, the institute worked with epidemiologist Tamarra James-Todd at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

James-Todd became interested in the topic of what chemicals go into hair products while a master’s student at Boston University. She read about a study that compared a magazine advertisement for an anti-aging cream in Ladies’ Home Journal, a publication targeting white women, versus an ad for a placenta-based product  — sheep placenta has become a mainstay ingredient in lots of leave-in conditioners — in Essence magazine, which targets black women.

A lot of the products contained fragrances with phthalates, which have been linked to obesity, increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, pre-term birth, preeclampsia and gestational diabetes.


It is reported that 60 percent of black girls reach their period by age 12, compared to about half of that for white girls. This inspired James to do a study of her own. When she was working on her doctoral degree at Columbia University, James-Todd led a study around hair products being used in the greater New York metro area. The results backed up her theory: More girls were using hair oils for a longer period of time and those girls were much more likely to have their period earlier, which can significantly increase the likelihood of breast cancer.

Black women who used chemical straighteners and white women who used dark hair dyes were also at higher risk for breast cancer, but that might have been due to chance. James-Todd said that because so many of the black women used chemical relaxers and so many of the white women used dark hair dye, links would have been hard to detect.

The study included the largest population of African-American women thus far examined for breast cancer risk and dark hair dye, according to the research team.

Previous studies have shown that long-term users of dark dyes have a four-fold increased risk of fatal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and fatal multiple myeloma, the authors write. Prior research also has associated dark hair dye use with an increased risk of bladder cancer.

James was inspired by another study that shows one in four African American girls, ranging from four months to four years of age, showed they had all been developing breast and pubic hair — all of whom had mothers who were using hair oils and different types of products on them. An independent laboratory test confirmed that there were three types of estrogen found within the collection of products being used. It’s now known that about 50 percent of the products marketed to black women contain these controversial chemicals, compared to only about seven percent of products targeted to white women.

A 2016 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that breast cancer rates are generally similar for black and white women, at around 122 new cases for every 100,000 women per year, although black women with the disease are more likely to die from it due to late detection.

Currently there are no laws that require personal care product companies to disclose all of the substances that are going into their products, due to trademark agreements. There is, however, a movement in the US Senate to enact the Personal Care Product and Safety Act, which would develop a protocol by which products are tested before being placed on store shelves.

Click here to listen to the full interview on Living on Earth.

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