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    We Have to Say Something

    by Ngozi Osuagwu, MD | August 13th, 2023

    We Have to Say Something

    I recently chanced upon the headline: Black Women Weigh Emerging Risks of “Creamy Crack” Hair Straighteners. Ronnie Cohen wrote the article. I had never heard of ‘creamy crack.’ I had to read more.

    ‘Creamy crack’ is another word for chemical straighteners. Chemical straighteners have been referred to as crack because, despite the mounting evidence that perming the hair could be a health hazard, some women are addicted to straightening their hair and will not stop.

    According to National Institutes of Health studies, relaxers can contain carcinogens, like formaldehyde-releasing agents, phthalates, and other endocrine-disrupting compounds. These compounds can mimic the body’s hormones and have been linked to breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer. Chemicals in hair products have also been linked to various other health issues among Black women – from early puberty to preterm birth, obesity, and diabetes.

    Cancer physicians and researchers say, “African-American women’s often frequent and lifelong application of chemical relaxers to their hair and scalp might explain why hormone-related cancers kill disproportionately more Black than white women.”

    Why are manufacturers, policymakers, and physicians not warning consumers that relaxers might cause cancer and other health problems?

    • Some people are waiting for more studies.
    • Racism continues to dictate fashion standards, making it challenging for women to quit relaxers.
    • Manufacturers are not motivated to the amount of money in this industry.
    • Physicians may not want to offend their patients.
    • The Food and Drug Administration does not subject personal-care products to the same approval it uses for food and drugs.

    After reading this article, I know we have to say something. I know as a physician, I have an obligation, and I am starting here. If I am going to encourage my patients to stop smoking because of a link between tobacco use and lung cancer, I should be able to do the same with chemical relaxers. Does everyone who smokes get lung cancer? No. Will everyone using a chemical relaxer get breast, ovarian, or uterine cancer? No. However, everyone deserves to be educated and know there is a link between chemical hair straighteners and hormone-related cancer – breast, ovarian, and uterine.

    When it comes to hair, I understand we all have a story. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, my hair was natural. My mom would use a hot comb on a special occasion. I went to undergrad in the South and was cornrowing my hair initially. A guy told me, “We do not do natural in the South.” I fell to peer pressure and got a perm. I knew nothing about managing a perm and did not realize the cost that would be incurred. My hair started to break. This was in the mid-1980s in the South. When I went home to New York, I got a braid extension.

    I no longer cared what anyone said. I kept the braids longer than I was supposed to and had to cut my hair by my senior year in college. By the time I was in medical school, I had returned to getting a perm. I was better at taking care of my hair. I kept the perm until I had my second child. I had two children under three and decided to cut my hair. I had no time to go to a hairdresser. Taking my son, daughter, and me to the barber was easy. By the time I had my third child, who was a girl, I knew I would never perm my hair again. I wanted my children, especially my daughters, to see the beauty in natural hair. I also wanted my colleagues and patients to know that natural hair is professional. On April 5, 2019, I went from twisting to locs. I have found it much easier to manage. The story of my locs is another story for another day.

    I would love to hear your hair story, whether your hair is natural or straightened. We all have a voice when it comes to hair.

    2 Responses to “We Have to Say Something”

    1. Linda K. Jackson says:

      I came of age in the late 60’s and, in the height of black pride, decided to go natural. Although my parents were not in favor of it, I kept my Afro hairstyle nicely done by getting it cut/shaped regularly by a barber. I later got a Jheri curl, but didn’t like it, and returned to wearing my hair natural. I tried a perm a few times, and realized that my personality called for natural hair, for me. I’ve had locs for more than 20 years and, even with some hair loss (due to a thyroid condition), I keep my hair natural, and wear a head wrap to cover my hair loss. I am strongly in favor of physicians sharing information with their patients on the dangers of creamy crack.

      • Ngozi Osuagwu, MD says:

        Thank you for sharing your hair story. When it comes to hair, we need to be able to share our stories, so no one feels alone.

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