Are Chemical Relaxers Linked To Cancer?

By | October 24, 2017
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Is Using A Hair Relaxer A Good Idea?


are chemical relaxers linked to cancer?

I have been using a chemical relaxer for more than 30 years until recently, the last 4 years, I have stopped using them and have embarked on the natural hair journey. It is no secret that EVERY woman aspires to look her best and sometimes will make sacrifices of all kinds:

  • Monetary budgets
  • Health
  • Social grouping
  • False or contraband hair products and tools

Just a short list of what women do to look their ‘hairy’ best!

There are some women who have ‘unruly’ hair and they use ‘hair relaxers’ to make their hair more manageable. The use of these relaxers should be applied to virgin hair and then in average 6-8 weeks, a new application to the new growth. Of course, not all women follow the rules of this hair treatment and sometimes, the results can be serious to these misusers:

  • Broken or split ends to their hair
  • Hair Loss
  • Bald patches
  • Thinning hair
  • Loss of hair elasticity
  • Over-processed hair resulting in yet more hair breakage

And this is a short list, but a list of the more commonly known results.

What Are Chemical Relaxers?

Chemical relaxers are creams created to alter the texture of one’s hair. This is done by combining certain chemicals which will permanently alter the hair bonds and make them elongated and devoid of a curl pattern.

According to Wikipedia, ‘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.’ [1]

The first documented article about relaxers and their use was when Garrett A. Morgan discovered a way to straighten hair in 1909. He stumbled upon the concoction while he was trying to find a solution to ease the friction of a sewing machine in his shop. His first test subject was his neighbor’s dog’s fur. After this, he established G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company and started selling the product to Black people.

 Types Of Chemical Relaxers

There are a few different types of chemical hair relaxers:

  • thio relaxers – this type of relaxer uses ATG – ammonium thioglycolate – which is also used in permanent waving, but to a greater degree of pH value. It is usually more than a value of 10. The consistency is also noticeably thicker which also makes application easier for the customer. Thio relaxers break the disulfide hair bonds which is a similar process when doing a permanent wave process. Once the bonds are broken, after some time with the cream on the hair, the hair is rinsed and towel-dried. It is at this point that a neutralizer is applied.
  • alkaline and lye relaxers – lye relaxers are harsh and can cause chemical burns to the scalp if over-exposed. A lye relaxer consists of sodium hydroxide (also known as NaOH or lye) mixed with water, petroleum jelly, mineral oil, and emulsifiers to create a creamy consistency. The lye penetrates the cortex and weakens its internal bonds, thereby causing the curl pattern to be ‘relaxed’ as the entire fiber swells. There is no special deactivation step other than washing the lye cream out and using a conditioner to return the pH balance to the hair and scalp. It should be noted that there are ‘base’ and ‘no base’ formulas. All this simply means is that with the ‘base’ formula, one has to apply petroleum jelly to the scalp before the relaxer while it is not needed for the ‘no-base’ formula due to the lower concentration of lye cream. In any event, either can still cause chemical irritation to the scalp or skin.
  • no-lye relaxers – the no-lye relaxer can also cause chemical burns to the scalp if over-exposed. With the awareness of the potential harm from sodium hydroxide found in traditional relaxer formulas, women started to reduce their usage. Then manufacturers sought another way to relax the hair. They would use alkaline agents like potassium hydroxide, lithium hydroxide, or guanidine hydroxide, ammonium thioglycolate ( often called perm salt), and ammonium sulfite and ammonium bisulfite (which a common ingredient of many home relaxer kits).

What Is pH?

are chemical relaxers linked to cancer?

The pH is a measure used to determine the acidity and alkalinity of a substance. The scale is represented by numbers ranging from 0 to 14 where 7 is neutral. Greater than 7 on the pH scale is more alkaline and less than 7 is more acidic. The pH of hair ranges between 4.5 – 5.5. Lye relaxers range from 12 – 14 and no-lye relaxers range from 9 – 11.

What Is The Makeup Of These Relaxers?

With the initial reports about chemical relaxers being a possible cause for cancer, manufacturers were changing the ingredients to ‘reduce’ the effect. One of the more common ingredients is the lye chemical. Manufacturers started making lye and no-lye chemical products in an effort to keep their products and not to have a negative effect on their sales despite the reported findings.

Here are the basic ingredients for a well-known chemical relaxer:

Water, Petrolatum, Mineral Oil, Cetearyl Alcohol, Polysorbate 60, PEG-150 Stearate, Steareth-20, Cetyl Alcohol, Laneth-15, Peg-60 Lanolin, Propylene Glycol, Sodium Hydroxide, Fragrance, Potassium Cocyl, Hydrolyzed Collagen.

Of course, the ingredients have changed over the years, however, sodium hydroxide is still there even in this ‘mild formula’.

Applications Of Chemical Hair Relaxers

The chemical relaxer can be applied professionally in a hair salon under the skilled hands of a hair stylist or by yourself with the help of a home kit. Of course, there are factors governing your decision of either and the primary factor being ‘cost’ of the application. As ‘bad’ as chemical relaxers may seem for your hair, it is still important to outline the advantages and disadvantages in order to help anyone make an informed decision – it’s only fair.

Advantages Of Using A Chemical Hair Relaxer

Surely, one will wonder if there are any advantages to be gained from using a hair relaxer on one’s hair – I have compiled a list of a few which I think might merit using it as a solution to one’s hair challenge. Of course, I write these advantages under the assumption that the chemical relaxer will be correctly administered by a professional hair stylist, at least for the first time. It:

  • Helps to make ‘unruly’ hair more manageable
  •  Helps to re-structure the hair strand on a long-term basis if this is what is preferred by the customer

Disadvantages Of Using A Chemical Hair Relaxer

As with anything in life, there will be good things and not so good things to help make a decision concerning the final choice. This is no different as we discuss chemical relaxers. Here is a list of what I consider disadvantages to using a chemical relaxer:

  • It has been linked to possible cancer-causing agents (see report below).
  • Improper use can result in hair loss, hair thinning.
  • Sometimes, while processing application, there can be resulting scalp burns which sometimes result in bald spots and permanent hair loss.
  • It is an expensive process that has to be repeated every 6-8 weeks – whether it is a home kit or a professional application.
  • It compromises the health of your hair.

 Are These Relaxers Linked To Cancer-Causing Agents?

Quite honestly, anything is possible. Improper use of any chemical WILL have an adverse effect on anyone’s health and well-being. It is not easy to ‘point a finger’ and definitively say, ‘yes’. In order to do so, one would have to compile tons of evidence based on solid research and results in the negative effect.

In my opinion, I would rather be safe than sorry. It is true that I decided to leave ‘the creamy crack’ behind after so many years, however, it is a choice I made for my personal reasons:

  • the expense of maintenance – at home and in salons
  • the frequency of re-touches
  • my hair health – my hair was becoming thin and fragile over time and use
  • I just decided to embrace my natural hair texture – and I love it!

I am sure you will have your own reasons too for your decision either way. I have no regrets. I can only hope that it was not too late and I have been spared from any possibility of having contact with any cancer-causing agent not yet fully proven to be undecidedly a cancer-causing agent from using or having used any chemical relaxer products.

Possible Solutions To Using Chemical Relaxers

With the onset of the natural hair revolution, women are now more willing to embrace their natural hair textures and take the time to inform themselves on how to maintain their natural hair.  They can:

  • become members of hair boards where they can post their questions or concerns and get answers readily – of course, a word of caution – not all questions can be justified as ‘correct’ answers and each answer is subjective on the person giving it and their experience.
  • Better educate themselves as there are increasingly more websites being ‘born’ to help educate women on their natural hair journey (such as this one).
  • Find more natural hair products because there are more manufacturers taking notice of the ‘natural hair revolution’ and making more products to cater to this market.
  • Can find more hair salons which are willing to more natural hair services.

My Final Thoughts

As one can never be sure of what ingredient will be a causative factor in any product – whether on its own or used in combination with another chemical. I implore you to be careful and start practicing the art of reading labels for all products – not just for your hair, but for everything. Having a sense of awareness is always a ‘good thing’.

I welcome any feedback you might have on this discussion.


michelle lake authorREFERENCES:

[1] Wikipedia

Report – Relaxers Are Linked To Cancer ( Taken from

‘Ingredients in dyes and treatments linked to number of health problems, research says 

Written by Vic Motune 
25/07/2017 05:45 PM

HEALTH RISKS: Hair straightening products and hair dye are a cause for concern

WOMEN WHO regularly chemically straighten their hair or dye it dark brown or black have an elevated risk of breast cancer, according to recent US research.

The study of 4,285 African-American and white women was the first to find a significant increase in breast cancer risk among black women who used dark shades of hair dye and white women who used chemical relaxers. Black women who reported using dark hair dye had a 51 percent increased risk of breast cancer, compared with black women who did not. The risk of breast cancer was even higher for white women who regularly dyed their hair darker shades and also used chemical relaxers – the study found that this group had a 74 percent increased risk of breast cancer.

The results were published in the research journal Carcinogenesis.

After reviewing the findings, Harvard epidemiologist Tamarra James-Todd, who was not involved with the new research, said:

“I would be concerned about darker hair dye and hair straighteners.


“We should really think about using things in moderation and really try to think about being more natural. Just because something is on the market does not necessarily mean it is safe for us.”

The association between relaxers and breast cancer in white women surprised lead author Adana Llanos, an epidemiologist at the Rutgers School of Public Health in Piscataway, New Jersey, although she worried enough about the safety of hair relaxers in African-American women, like herself, to stop using them years ago. She said:

“A lot of people have asked me if I’m telling women not to dye their hair or not to use relaxers. I’m not saying that. What I think is really important is we need to be more aware of the types of exposures in the products we use.”

The study included adult women from New York and New Jersey, surveyed from 2002 through 2008, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, plus women of similar age and race, but without a history of cancer. Women were asked if they had ever used permanent hair dye at least twice a year for at least a year. They were also asked if they had ever chemically relaxed or straightened their hair for at least a year. While the vast majority – 88 percent – of black women had used chemicals to relax their hair, only five percent of white women reported using relaxers.

The findings follow the publication last year of a five-year study into black women’s commercial hair products which found that a significant number contain ingredients linked to miscarriage, uterine fibroids, cancers and respiratory problems. The report, called Natural Evolutions: One Hair Story was produced by Los Angeles-based not-for-profit organisation Black Women for Wellness (BWWLA) and was compiled by collecting health data, specialist reports, conducting focus groups of black women who used hair products as well as interviews with product manufacturers and more than 100 hair salon professionals.

Among some of the key concerns found by the report were the presence of chemicals such as formaldehyde, used in many hair straightening products, ammonia, which is used in hair dyes and bleaching agents all of which have been known to cause breathing difficulties and occupational asthma.

The report also cites research that deep-coloured dyes used over long periods are thought to increase the risk of both non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma.’

2 thoughts on “Are Chemical Relaxers Linked To Cancer?

  1. Brittaney Verkuyl

    Because my hair is naturally curly, I have to be careful what products I use on it. I have looked into hair relaxants. I decided they were not for me. Though I really wanted my frizz to go away. Like really badly. I am now very happy I decided not to go that route. I am trying to fix dry and frizzy hair, not to mention split ends and the whole nine yards.

    1. Michelle Post author

      Hello Brittaney,
      Thanks for stopping by. Yes, it can e scary at times if we decide to look into the number of chemicals that we put into our bodies – directly and indirectly. The sad thing is that it ‘adds up’ over time and this is the main problem. Yes, trying to use natural alternatives is always a better choice by far. You might want to try doing deep-conditioning to help reduce your frizz too. Here is also a few suggestions.
      All the best.


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