New research suggests certain hair treatments may up your risk. But how concerned should you be?
From drinking alcohol frequently to using e-cigarettes, there are all kinds of habits that can up your cancer risk. One thing you might not think about as being risky? The hair products you use. But according to a recent study published in Carcinogenesis, certain types of hair treatments may be linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. (Here, find out the bra technology that can detect breast cancer.)
Researchers talked to more than four thousand women ages 20 to 75—women who both had breast cancer and never had breast cancer—and interviewed them about their hair product habits, including whether they used hair dye, chemical relaxers, chemical straighteners, and deep conditioning creams. They also accounted for other factors like reproductive and personal health history.
Using dark-hued hair dyes (black or dark brown) was associated with a 51 percent increased overall risk of developing breast cancer in African-American women and a 72 percent increased risk of estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer (the kind that grows in response to the hormone estrogen) among African-American women. Using chemical relaxers or straighteners was associated with a 74 percent increased risk among white women. While this certainly sounds scary, it's important to note off the bat that only very specific types of products were found to have a possible effect on breast cancer risk, and it's just that: a possible effect, not a proven cause and effect.
Overall, the study authors conclude that the biggest takeaways from this study are that some hair products—including ones women may use at home for self-administered treatments—have a relationship with breast cancer risk (TBD on the exact details of that relationship), and that this is definitely an area that should be explored in further research.
And considering that a new JAMA Internal Medicine study found that adverse side effects from *all kinds* of cosmetic products—including makeup, skin care, and hair care—are on the rise, it seems more important than ever to be careful about what you put on and around your body. But how serious are the implications from this particular study really?
First, it's worth noting that these results are not totally out of left field. "These results aren't surprising," says Marleen Meyers, M.D., director of the Survivorship Program at NYU Langone's Perlmutter Cancer Center. "Environmental exposure to certain products has always been implicated in increasing the risk of cancers," she says. Basically, exposing yourself to chemicals that are known or suspected to be carcinogenic is never a good idea. (That may be why lots of women have already rethought those regular keratin treatments.) Hair dyes, in particular, contain many chemicals (over 5,000 different ones are currently in use, according to the National Cancer Institute), so it's worth checking out the ingredients in any dye or relaxing products you use at home, using a reputable resource like the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database or Cosmeticsinfo.org.
Still, experts say that more research is needed before they can say who is most at risk and whether people should stop using all products in the dark hair dye and relaxing/straightening categories. "I think it is very important to emphasize that a case-controlled study (meaning a study that retroactively compares people who have had breast cancer with those who have not) cannot establish cause and effect," says Maryam Lustberg, M.D., a breast oncologist at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute. The study is also limited by the fact that it relies on the participants' recollections of the treatments they've used in the past, meaning that it's possible that not all the information they provided was correct. This could affect the results.
"I agree that reducing overall chemical exposure in our environment is a positive step. However, I would not use this article as evidence to radically change personal grooming preferences unless the results are confirmed by other studies," Dr. Lustberg says. (Looking to restock your beauty cabinet with clean products? Here are seven natural beauty products that actually work.)
The real takeaway here, it seems, is that if you're trying to be vigilant about your breast cancer risk, it may be a good idea to stop using these products for your own peace of mind. But as of now, there isn't convincing enough proof that you must stop using them.
Plus, there are other things you can focus on if you're concerned about cancer. "We know that a lot can be done to decrease the risk of breast cancer and other cancers, including having a healthy body mass index, getting regular exercise, avoiding sun exposure, limiting alcohol, and quitting smoking," says Dr. Meyers.