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Hair Dyes And Straighteners Linked To Higher Cancer Risk, Especially For Black Women : Shots

Hair dyes and straighteners contain chemicals that are being studied for their health effects.

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Hair dyes and straighteners contain chemicals that are being studied for their health effects.

Srdjanpav/Getty Images

New research raises concern about the safety of permanent hair dye and chemical hair straighteners, especially among African American women. The study was published Wednesday in the International Journal of Cancer.

Previous research in animals has found links between certain chemicals in hair dye and straighteners and cancer. But findings from other human studies on the association between hair dyes and straighteners and cancer have been inconsistent. This large, prospective study provides firmer evidence of a link.

Researchers analyzed data from an ongoing study called the Sister Study, looking at medical records and lifestyle surveys from 46,709 women between the ages of 35 and 74. Women answered questions about their use of hair dyes and straighteners. While earlier studies on hair dye and cancer risk included mostly white women, the new study includes 9% African American women.

Researchers found that women who used permanent hair dye or chemical straighteners were at higher risk of developing breast cancer.

“The association was notably higher among black women,” says epidemiologist Alexandra White, study author and an investigator with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, who studies environmental risk factors for breast cancer.

After eight years of follow-up, White found permanent hair dye use was associated with about a 7% higher risk of developing breast cancer among white women, “whereas in black women that risk was about 45 percent.”

That risk was even higher among black women who dyed their hair frequently, every one or two months.

Researchers don’t know which ingredients in the products might be of concern. The study did not look at the specific ingredients in the products women were using, only at whether they had used the product and whether they developed breast cancer.

All women in the Sister Study were already at high risk for breast cancer since they had a sister who had breast cancer.

Researchers note that in the United States, breast cancer incidence remains high for all women and appears to be increasing for non-Hispanic black women, who also are more likely to be diagnosed with more aggressive forms of the disease and more likely to die from it.

Hair products contain more than 5,000 chemicals, according to researchers, including those with mutagenic and endocrine-disrupting properties such as aromatic amines, which can raise cancer risk, according to White.

When it came to chemical straighteners, risk didn’t vary by race. Both black and white women who used hair straighteners were about 30% more likely to develop breast cancer than those who didn’t use the products. However, black women are more likely to use them, with about 75% of black women in the study reporting they straighten their hair.

“For the chemical straighteners one of the big concerns there is formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen,” says White. She notes that in the early 2000s just before the study began, Brazilian keratin treatments came on the market. This new treatment, commonly called a Brazilian blowout, contains formaldehyde, while earlier hair straightening treatments did not.

The study findings should be understood in context, says Dr. Otis Brawley, a medical oncologist with Johns Hopkins University. The actual risk found for use of these hair treatments is quite low, he adds, especially compared with other known carcinogens like tobacco or radiation. “This is a very weak signal that these things might be causing cancer in the population,” he says.

Much more research is needed, he says, to know for sure how risky these products are. For example, long-term clinical trials with a control group and placebo would be more definitive, but this type of study “would be difficult if not impossible to do.”

“Sometimes science just cannot give us the answers that we want it to give us,” says Brawley.

In the meantime, Brawley says, there are certain lifestyle factors that have stronger evidence of a link to cancer and are more important for women to focus on. “It is for certain that obesity, consuming too many calories and lack of exercise is a risk factor for breast cancer, a definite risk factor,” he says, while the findings of this study only add up to a “perhaps” when it comes to risk.

Dr. Doris Browne, a medical oncologist and former president of the National Medical Association, suggests women start a conversation with their doctor about their risk for breast cancer.

“I think it’s important for women, particularly African American women, not to panic every time a study comes out,” she says. “But it should raise questions for our primary care providers.”

For example, Browne suggests doctors and patients discuss the use of hair products like dyes and straighteners along with other aspects of a “social history” like alcohol consumption, smoking, obesity and living near environmental contaminants.

According to Browne, the key lesson from this study for both doctors and patients is that “when we are aware of a new association (of breast cancer risk) we need to increase our surveillance” to include this potential risk factor in doctor-patient discussions.

For both races, there was no increased risk for women who used semi-permanent or temporary dyes, the kind that eventually wash out with shampooing. To reduce risk, researcher White says women might want to choose these products instead.

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Mum had her eyes fused shut after hair dye left her face looking ‘like an alien’

A mum-of-two nearly died from serious allergic reaction triggered by a £50 hair dye product.

Shannon Thurston, of Essex, ended up in hospital with swollen forehead ‘like an alien’ and breathing difficulties after failing to carry out a patch test.

The swelling forced her eyes fused shut and her airways started to close up.

Now, the 24-year-old is determined to raise awareness of the dangers of PPD (paraphenylenediamine), a common chemical used in many hair dyes.

The student social worker says: “I feel so stupid for not realising that your body can develop an allergy to ingredients even after being exposed to them before.

The reaction left her eyes fused shut and her airways started to close up

“I’m lucky I was treated in time. It almost killed me.”

Shannon has been dyeing her hair since 2007, when she was 12.

She’s coloured her natural light brown hair every shade from pink to bleach blonde, to chocolate brown.

She says: “I loved changing my style. My aunt Sharon, 47, was a hairdresser and she’d apply the box dye to my hair.

“I always did a patch test when I used a new box and I coloured my hair every two months.”

But in February 2012, when Shannon was 16, she wanted to dye her hair a dark chocolate brown.

It happened after she used a hair dye product

She says: “I’d used the box before, it was a Nice ‘n’ Easy Perfect 10 dye. As I’d used it before, I told Sharon not to bother with a patch test.

“When Sharon applied the dye as usual, my head felt itchy, but I ignored it.

“I loved my new dark-brown hair, but the next day, I had red bumps along the bottom of my neck. Again, I wasn’t worried as I figured it was just irritation.”

The following day, Shannon woke up and her left eye was badly swollen.

Throughout the day, it worsened and her mum, Kay, 46, who works in sales, took her to A&E at Basildon Hospital.

By the time the pair arrived, Shannon’s eye was completely shut and her airways were beginning to close.

Doctors revealed she’d had an allergic reaction to PPD, and they gave her a nebuliser to open her airways.

They also administered steroids and antihistamines to control the swelling.

Shannon before the allergic reaction

By this point, even her forehead was swollen.

Shannon says: “It was terrifying – l looked like an alien. The next morning, both my eyes and neck were swollen.

“My scalp was burning – it felt like it was on fire.

“I was in hospital for around four days, as doctors couldn’t get the swelling under control. Nurses tried to wash out the dye from my hair.

“They even suggested shaving my hair off to stop the reaction, but I begged them not to. I couldn’t bear the thought of having no hair.

“I was struggling to breathe and doctors told me that if I’d have waited to go to hospital, I could have died.

“My forehead looked like a water balloon and my eyes were completely shut, so I was temporarily blind.”

Shannon was in the hospital for four days

Eventually Shannon was discharged from hospital, but her face remained swollen for four weeks.

She also took steroids for a further three months.

She says: “Classmates pointed at my face and jeered at me.

“They even took pictures of me, it was so humiliating, but I was pleased to have survived my ordeal.

“I’ve never dyed my hair since then. It’s not worth it.

“I only get highlights now and make sure I get a patch test every time. My aunt felt so guilty, but I reassured her that it wasn’t her fault.

“Always do a patch test and leave it on for the recommended 48 hours. It could save your life.”

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A spokesperson for Clairol said: “The safety of the people who use our products is our first and most important priority, so we’re very concerned to hear about Ms Thurston’s experience with Nice’n Easy.

“It is imperative patch tests are conducted at least 48 hours before colouring, details of how to perform this test are included with each of our products to help minimise risk to consumers.

“Allergic reactions are very rare and hair colourants are extensively researched to ensure they are safe when used as directed.”

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