What You Need to Know About Hair Products and Breast Cancer Risk

New research suggests certain hair treatments may up your risk. But how concerned should you be?

From frequent alcohol consumption to the use of electronic cigarettes, there are all kinds of habits that can increase your risk of cancer. One thing you may not consider risky? The hair products you use. But studies show that certain types of hair treatments may be linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.

A new study published in the International Journal of Cancer and funded by the National Institutes of Health suggests that women who use permanent hair dyes and chemical straighteners may be at a higher risk of developing breast cancer compared to women who do not use these products. .

To draw their conclusions, the researchers reviewed data from an ongoing study called the Sister Study, which includes nearly 47,000 women without breast cancer whose sisters were diagnosed with the disease. The women, who were between 35 and 74 years old at enrollment, initially answered questions about their general health and lifestyle habits (including the use of hair care products). They then provided researchers with updates on their health and lifestyle during an average follow-up of eight years. Overall, the results showed that women who said they used permanent hair dye were 9% more likely to develop breast cancer than those who did not report using these products. African-American women, in particular, seemed to be even more affected: the study found that this group of women had a 45 percent increased risk of breast cancer compared with a 7 percent risk among white women. While it is not entirely clear why there was a greater risk increase among black women, the researchers wrote that this may be because different types of hair care products – particularly those that may contain higher concentrations of certain carcinogenic chemicals – are marketed. for women of color.

The researchers also found a link between chemical hair straighteners (think keratin treatments) and breast cancer. In this case, the risk did not vary by race. Based on the data, the use of a chemical straightener was associated with an 18% higher risk of breast cancer overall, and the risk increased to 30% for those who reported using a chemical straightener every five to eight weeks. Although the risk did not appear to be affected by race, black women in the study were more likely to report the use of these straighteners (74% compared with 3% of white women).

Obviously, the research had its limitations. The study authors noted that all participants had a family history of breast cancer, meaning that their results may not necessarily apply to those without a family history. In addition, since women reported using permanent hair dye and chemical straighteners, remembering these habits may not have been entirely accurate and may have distorted the results, the researchers wrote. With all this in mind, the study authors concluded that more research is needed to identify a more concrete association between these hair products and the risk of breast cancer.

What This Means

While researchers cannot identify exactly what in these chemicals may be increasing their risk of breast cancer in women, they suggest that women may want to rethink the use of permanent hair dyes.

“We are exposed to many things that can potentially contribute to breast cancer, and it is unlikely that a single factor explains a woman’s risk,” study co-author Dale Sandler, Ph.D. said in a statement. “While it is too early to make a firm recommendation, avoiding these chemicals may be one more thing women can do to reduce their risk of breast cancer.”

It turns out that this is not the first study to raise red flags on the use of permanent hair dyes and other chemical hair treatments. A 2017 study published in the medical journal Carcinogenesis looked at 4,000 women ages 20 to 75, including women who had breast cancer and those who never had breast cancer. The women provided the researchers with details about their hair care habits, including whether they used hair dye, chemical relaxers, chemical straighteners, and deep conditioner creams. The researchers also accounted for other factors such as reproductive and personal health history.

The use of dark-colored (black or dark brown) hair dyes has been associated with a 51% increase in overall risk of developing breast cancer in African American women and a 72% increase in estrogen receptor positive breast cancer risk. (the type that grows in response to estrogen) among African American women. The use of chemical relaxers or straighteners was associated with a 74% increased risk among white women. While this certainly sounds daunting, it is important to note that only very specific types of products can affect the risk of breast cancer, and that is all: a possible effect, not a proven cause and effect.

Overall, the authors of the Carcinogenesis study concluded that the study’s biggest findings are that some hair products – including those that women can use at home for self-administered treatments – have a relationship to breast cancer risk (again). TBD with the exact details of this) and that this is definitely an area that should be explored in future research.

And whereas there is another study by JAMA Internal Medicine that found that the adverse side effects of all types of cosmetic products – including makeup, skin care and hair – are on the rise, it seems more important than ever to be careful what you put in and around your body.

How Worried Should You Really Be?

First, it is noteworthy that these findings are not entirely outside the left field. “These results are not surprising,” says Marleen Meyers, M.D., director of NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center Survival Program, of JAMA’s Carcinogenesis and Internal Medicine studies. “Environmental exposure to certain products has always been implicated in the increased risk of cancer,” she says. Basically, exposing yourself to known or suspected carcinogenic chemicals is never a good idea. (This may be why many women have rethought regular keratin treatments.) Hair dyes in particular contain many chemicals (more than 5,000 different ones are currently in use, according to the National Cancer Institute), so it’s worth it. It is worthwhile to check the ingredients in any dye or relaxing products used at home using a reputable resource such as the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database or Cosmeticsinfo.org.

Still, experts say more research is needed before they can tell who is most at risk and whether people should stop using permanent hair dye or chemical straighteners / relaxers. “I think it’s very important to emphasize that a case-controlled study (ie, a study that retroactively compares people who had breast cancer with people who don’t) can’t establish cause and effect,” says Maryam Lustberg, MD, oncologist. Breast Cancer at Ohio State University Cancer Center, Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute. These studies are also limited by relying on participants’ memories of the treatments and products they used, which means that not all information provided may have been accurate.

The real argument here, it seems, is that if you are trying to be vigilant about the risk of breast cancer, it may be a good idea to stop using these products for your own peace of mind. But as of now, there is not enough convincing evidence that you should stop using them.

In addition, there are other things you can focus on if you are concerned about cancer. “We know a lot can be done to lower the risk of breast cancer and other cancers, including having a healthy body mass index, exercising regularly, avoiding sun exposure, limiting alcohol and quitting smoking,” he says. Dr. Meyers.

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