Whatever you do, who ever you are as a woman, you use some type of beauty products every day: Make up, relaxers, nail polish, lotion, hair spray, wax, powder,deodorant…..
But most of these items contain chemicals that can be dangerous to our health with long term exposure, even in small doses.
Talcum powder has been in the news a lot lately because of several cases of cervical cancer in women users, as well as cancer in workers who mine talc. (Find out more here.)
Most women already know about formaldehyde and the possible link to cancer in nail polish, and other beauty products, like the Brazilian Blowout that was popular a few years ago. (here)
The question is though, do any of these beauty and health products cause or contribute to fibroids?
I’d like to preface this by saying that I am not a scientist. (though I was good at biology in high school, if that counts for anything) I’m just a woman with a little bit of time, and access to great wifi who wants answers, and wants to share the answers with you.
Let’s start with the mother of beauty products for many Black women: The Relaxer
For those of you who may not know:
A relaxer is a type of lotion or cream generally used by people with tight curls or very curly hair which makes hair easier to straighten by chemically “relaxing” the natural curls. The active agent is usually a strong alkali, although some formulations are based on ammonium thioglycolate instead.
A relaxer is applied to “new growth” every 6-8 weeks to straighten the roots.
You can also watch this clip from Chris Rock’s Good Hair, where he explores relaxers, their frequency in the Black community, and an experiment with a chemist. Prince jokes aside, its a great way to gain an understanding of relaxers.
In the last few years, many black women have decided to “go natural”, ditching perms and opting to wear their hair in its naturally curly or kinky state, or using heat to straighten instead of chemicals. Many women made this choice because it seems healthier, and part of that is the possible link to relaxers and uterine fibroids.
The rumor that relaxers, and other Black hair care products, may be linked to the higher rates of uterine fibroids in Black women has be circulating for a while. But is there any truth to this?
The most often sited study is this 2012 American Journal of Epidemiology study. The study is ongoing, and surveys 59,000 Black women 21–69 years old. The participants from around the country are asked to update their medical information and complete a survey every two years. The study tracks various items, relaxer usage being one of them, by sending additional questionnaires for those who have been diagnosed with fibroids, and confirmed via ultrasound or other means. For the relaxer/fibroids portion, the researchers premise was: “Hair relaxers are used by millions of black women, possibly exposing them to various chemicals through scalp lesions and burns.”
Hair relaxers (straighteners) have been used by millions of US black women, often for long periods of time (6). Hair relaxers can cause burns and lesions in the scalp, facilitating entry of hair relaxer constituents into the body (7–14). The main ingredient of “lye” relaxers is sodium hydroxide; no-lye relaxers contain calcium hydroxide and guanidine carbonate, and “thio” relaxers contain thioglycolic acid salts (15). No-lye relaxers are advertised to cause fewer scalp lesions and burns than lye relaxers, but there is little evidence to support this claim (16). Products may also contain hormonally active compounds (17), such as phthalates, which are not required to be listed separately as ingredients and are often reported under the term “fragrances” or “perfume” (18). Cosmetic products are not subject to premarket approval by the Food and Drug Administration, and a complete list of ingredients is not mandatory (19), making it unclear what types of chemicals they contain. However, because the vast majority of hair relaxers list “fragrance” as an ingredient, and 100% of popular fragrances tested in a 2002 study were found to contain phthalates (18, 20), most hair relaxers likely contain these chemicals. In addition, some hair relaxer products directly list phthalates as one of their chemical ingredients (21).
We’ll get more into phthalates later….Trust me. You need to know about them.
But the basic question is are Black women being exposed to harmful chemicals more and are the being absorbed quicker into the body via scalp burns?
In this large population of premenopausal US black women, we observed increased risks of uterine leiomyomata in association with ever use of hair relaxers, duration of use, frequency of use, and total number of burns experienced during use.
There’s a lot more to this study, and there are other studies out there, if you want to learn more. Please read the full study linked above as well as these articles/studies:
Scientific American (a Black woman scientists take on some of the research out there)
Now if you can still hang with me I’ve got more. This is a long post, something I try to avoid, but its necessary sometimes.
Lotions, Shampoos, Soaps, Make Up
Above, there is a mention of phthalates.
What the f*** is a phthalate? (Pronounced phthal·ate )
I’m glad you asked.
Phthalates are a sort of plastic, and it is used in all types of products, from CDs and toys to nail polish and hairsprays, and literally everything in between. Phthalates make plastics more flexible and durable. In beauty products, it is used to make things less stiff and prevent cracking. On a label, phthalates are usually listed as: phthalate, DEP, DBP, DEHP, or fragrance.
This chemical can be found in many beauty product we often use like body washes, or perfumed lotions, deodorant, (basically anything that has a smell to it), and nail polish. The use of phthalates in cosmetics is banned in Europe, but still 100% OK here in the US. This chemical is so common in so many daily products (not just beauty products), that many of us have detectable amounts of the chemical in our body, and, they can be passed on from mother to child.
But phthalates are not alone.
They have a buddy: parabens
Parabens are often used as a preservative in cosmetic products, such as shampoo, toothpaste, lubricants (ex: KY Jelly), shaving gel, and spray tan solution. There is often more than one type of paraben in a product. Parabens on a product label are usually listed as methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, or benzylparaben.
Phthalates and parabens do not need to work together, and they may not always be in products together, but very often when you see one, there is the other.
Now what is it about Parabens and Phthalates that is so bad? Well, they are both endocrine disruptors. Endocrine Disruptors are chemicals that may interfere with the body’s endocrine system, and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in both humans and wildlife. (National Institutes of Health)
The ednocrine system is what produces hormones. Any system in the body controlled or affected by hormones could be impacted.
Getting the connection? Fibroids linked to increased levels of estrogen, natural hormone production possibly being interfered with by chemicals……
The problem is these two are in pretty much everything we use, including various beauty products. Many women are exposed to these chemicals at high rates, having them absorbed into the skin, daily, weekly, monthly via lotions, body washes, shampoos, nail polish, combined with their broader use in food packaging, plastic toys, toothpaste, and many other daily products. So there can be no conclusive evidence that these beauty products alone cause or contribute to fibroids, as they are so plentiful in our modern world, but as women, we are willingly exposing ourselves to higher doses.
So do these products directly increase uterine fibroid risk, I side on yes, but not the beauty products alone.
Look for products free of these chemicals. Organic and natural hair care and beauty lines. This might mean putting out a few extra coins, but it may be worth it in the end.
I use natural shampoos and conditioners, and I try to use natural oils and butters (shea, coconut) on my skin. Soaps have been a little more of a challenge for me, and I have not at all transitioned to “natural” makeup brands, though I’m a big fan of Shea Moisture products, including their foundation.
What about all of the other things we do to beautify ourselves?
Pretty harmless as long as your esthetician knows what s/he is doing, like using clean sticks and not double dipping. There are instances of STDs being spread due to bad practices. Otherwise, waxing is pretty safe.
We all know nail polish can contain harmful chemicals like our buddies mentioned above and BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole). The curing process of a gel manicure, which requires time under a UV lamp, can create a new risk. Prolonged exposure to UV light is known to increase the risk of skin cancer. (Think tanning beds)
If you can, find an organic nail polish (I don’t know how good they are or where you would even find organic polish, but apparently it is a thing)
Also, if you’re into gel manis, put sunscreen on your hands up to an hour before you go in. If they have you wash them, bring it with you to re apply.
Bottom line: You expose yourself to a lot of chemicals that may have negative effects long term, but there are ways to lessen the damage.
Chemicals are bad. They can cause or contribute to health problems, including uterine fibroids, but we can’t really avoid them in our day-to-day lives.
Make smart choices and eliminate or limit your exposure to these chemicals if you can. There is a risk for cancers, fibroids, birth defects, and a host of other issues associated with many of these chemicals.
Be BeYOUtiful, but don’t make yourself sick for it.