Black Women's Hair Relaxers Could Be Harming Us

Almost every Black woman I know has had her hair relaxed at some point in her life. That’s not an exaggeration. From friends and family, to co-workers and loose acquaintances, almost all of them have had personal experiences with hair relaxer — a cream that straightens our natural curls. 

Growing up, relaxer kits were a staple in Black homes and hair salons. As a young girl, I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to sit in the chair and have the foul smelling cream slathered onto my head just like my mum, aunties and cousins had always done. So in July 2021, when Oxford University published a study linking hair relaxers containing lye to a 30% increased risk of breast cancer, I was devastated. I thought about all the Black women I know and love — some who have been relaxing their hair for decades. What’s going to happen to them? And will the companies selling us these products ever be held accountable?

The study’s authors concluded that there was evidence that the “heavy use of lye-containing hair relaxers may be associated with increased risk of ER+ breast cancer.” They added that more research was needed in this area. ER+ breast cancer is a specific kind of cancer which is sensitive to estrogen, a naturally occurring hormone in women’s bodies.

Lye (also known as sodium hydroxide) is a heavy-duty chemical used to unblock drains. It is also used in hair relaxers and other hair products produced by big brands which are aimed at Black women. They are even sometimes marketed at children and available right here in the UK. Household names selling products which contain Lye include L’Oréal and Revlon.

The latest study out of Oxford is the latest in a long line of examples which suggest the beauty industry’s ambivalence towards Black women’s health. Study after study has shown that products marketed towards Black women, including hair relaxers, shampoos and lightening creams, are linked to long-term health concerns including cancer, fertility issues and asthma, among others. 

L’Oréal is no stranger to consumer lawsuits: several cases have been (unsuccessfully) brought against them in the US by women who have gone bald, suffered scalp burns and hair loss.

Beyond the research, Black women have been publicly speaking about these experiences for decades, but no one seems to be listening. What will it take for us to be heard? I can’t help but wonder how quickly these products would have been removed and reformulated if white women were the ones at risk. That’s why I co-founded #NoMoreLyes, a campaign demanding that L’Oréal and Revlon publicly commit to removing lye and associated hydroxides from their products. If they cannot commit to this, they must take those products off the shelves.

In July 2021, Oxford University published a study linking the heavy use of hair relaxers containing lye to a 30% increased risk of breast cancer.

In response to this campaign, we’ve heard countless stories from Black women who have had horrific experiences with hair relaxers. Many have suffered extensive burns, scarring and hair loss. Some have wondered out loud if their fibroids and subsequent reproductive issues had been caused by using hair relaxers over a number of years. I wondered the same when I recently underwent surgery to remove fibroids.

One of these women is Nikki, 27, who said: “I decided to go natural after years and years of using relaxers. I suffered severe scalp burns every time I applied relaxer as well as hair breakage. I also developed asthma, something I never associated with using relaxer until I read the report.” 

L’Oréal continues to defend the safety of its products while Revlon has remained deafeningly silent, even though 3949 emails have been sent to the managing directors by people supporting this campaign.

Black women across the world relax their hair for a range of reasons — many of them are linked to white beauty standards. Some Black women do it to stay under the radar in order to avoid hair discrimination at work. Some of us just like the way it looks, or find that our hair is easier to manage that way. None of us knew that these products were potentially toxic and could make us fatally ill.

These brands should be as appalled as we are about the potential risk posed to their customers by toxic ingredients. But the defensive ambivalence around Black women’s health and the refusal to even engage in this conversation highlights just how little they care — and how far we have to go. 

In 2020, during the height of the global Black Lives Matter movement, L’Oréal and Revlon, amongst a sea of others, offered “support” to the movement and paid lip service in response to rising public pressure. The word ‘audacious’ comes to mind when you consider that it is the same brands who continue to sell products containing ingredients that may be toxic to Black women — and appear to have no plans to change this. This is their opportunity to show us that Black lives do matter; to start walking the walk and to put Black women’s lives before their bottom line. The same goes for the wholesalers and high street shops who continue to sell these products in their communities, knowing that they contain toxic ingredients which might be making Black women sick. 

We’re demanding #NoMoreLyes because our haircare shouldn’t kill us. Beauty is an important part of so many women’s lives, but it shouldn’t cost us ours. Level Up is fighting so that it won’t. 

Seyi Falodun-Liburd is co-director of Level Up. You can sign the #NoMoreLyes petition here.

Refinery29 has contacted both L’Oréal and Revlon for comment.

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