BOSTON — Concerning new research suggests chemical hair straighteners (or “relaxers”) may affect a woman’s ability to become pregnant. Study authors from Boston University School of Public Health report chemical hair straighteners appear to have an association with a slight reduction in the likelihood of pregnancy. The team notes they found that Black, Hispanic, and mixed-race individuals are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to use these products early in life, more frequently, and for longer durations.
This first-of-its-kind project reveals that current and former use of hair relaxers (greater frequency and duration of use), as well as sustained scalp burns from such products, also display a link with lower chances of becoming pregnant.
Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the study builds on a growing body of research linking reproductive health issues with exposure to toxic, endocrine-disrupting chemicals which are common in beauty products. Phthalates, phenols, and parabens are just a few of the ingredients in relaxers potentially contributing to reduced fecundability.
Even worse, researchers explain that full sets of ingredients are rarely displayed on hair relaxer product labels, meaning more data is necessary to form a full understanding of the specific mechanisms by which relaxers may affect fertility. However, this work still underscores the racial disparities at play when it comes to exposure to toxic chemicals in beauty care and subsequent adverse health consequences that may occur later on as a result. Researchers say societal pressure to conform to Eurocentric beauty norms coupled with racial discrimination — such as restrictions on or prohibitions of Afrocentric hairstyles in the workplace and schools — often contribute to the disproportionate use of these toxic beauty products by people of color.
“Our work underscores the importance of expanding research on the reproductive health effects of beauty product use to promote environmental justice and increase health equity,” says study lead author Dr. Lauren Wise, professor of epidemiology at BUSPH, in a media release.
Many Black respondents started using hair relaxers during childhood
Dr. Wise and the team analyzed survey data encompassing several aspects of hair relaxer use among people planning to have children within the BUSPH-based Pregnancy Study Online (PRESTO), an ongoing NIH-funded study since 2013 that enrolls U.S. and Canadian pregnancy planners and follows them from preconception up until six months after delivery. All PRESTO participants provided baseline information pertaining to their sociodemographics, lifestyle, and medical histories. Additionally, for this latest project, over 11,274 participants supplied information on several aspects of hair relaxer use between 2014 and 2022.
In comparison to those who never used a hair relaxer, people who reported using a relaxer at some point in time were more likely to be older, have less education, earn a lower annual income, have a higher BMI, smoke, unmarried, live in the Southern U.S., and experience longer pregnancy attempt time at study enrollment.
Current and former hair straightener use was highest among Black participants, followed by Hispanic participants. Over half of analyzed Black participants reported using their first relaxer before turning 10 years-old, a sizable difference in comparison to the one to 17 percent of other racial and ethnic groups.
Fertility rates, meanwhile, were lowest among people using relaxers for at least 10 years or at least five times annually. It’s worth noting, however, that the study results did not indicate if there is a pattern between how much of these chemicals someone uses in each dose and chances of conception.
The study is published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
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