Black Women and Uterine Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on October 21, 2022
4 min read

A recent study has found that Black women may be at a higher risk for uterine cancer because of harmful chemicals in some hair straightening products. These chemicals affect your body’s hormones. Experts consider them carcinogenic, or cancer-causing. While there have been other studies about how these products may increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancers, there is limited data about straightening products and uterine cancer.

It’s important to remember that while the risk is higher for people who use straightening products, uterine cancer is still a rare form of cancer. It is one of the most common gynecological cancers, though.

In the study, done by the National Cancer Institute, researchers looked at women who used hair products, compared to women who didn’t use them. They reviewed 33,947 people 35 through 74 years old between 2003 and 2009. The group was racially and ethnically diverse.

Each person self-reported their hair product use habits in the past 12 months. They recorded if they’d used hair relaxers, hair dyes, pressing products, perms, body waves, or straightening products.

The study followed the people almost 11 years. In that time, doctors diagnosed 378 cases of uterine cancer among those who were in the study. People who had used straightening products were shown to have more cases of uterine cancer than people who’d never used the products.

The link was even stronger in people who reported using straightening products often – more than four times in the past year. These women were more than twice as likely to get uterine cancer than women who never used a straightening product.

They estimated that 1.64% of women who’d never used these products would get uterine cancer by the time they were 70 years old. But people who use them regularly have a 4.05% risk of uterine cancer by that same age.

Contact with certain chemicals in hair products, especially straighteners, may be more harmful than with other personal care items. This is because your scalp absorbs more of the product than other parts of your body. Burns and wounds from straighteners might cause you to absorb even more of the product.

The data in this study matched up with older studies that found straightening products can raise your risk for other hormone-related cancers.

Experts only saw this trend with hair straightening products. Other products – like dyes, perms, bleach, highlights, or body waves – didn’t appear to cause higher rates of uterine cancer.

About 3% of all new cancer cases are uterine cancer. But among the kinds of cancers of the female reproductive system, uterine cancer is the most common. Experts have found that cases of uterine cancer have been on the rise in the United States. This is especially the case among Black women.

In the study by the National Cancer Institute, 60% of people who used straightening products self-identified as Black women. The study didn’t find that the link between straightener use and uterine cancer changed by race. But the health effects of this trend might be greater for Black women because they tend to use these products more often.

Black women and girls also tend to use these products at an earlier age. These trends may also contribute to the higher risk for uterine cancer.

Other gaps in health care put Black women at a higher risk for uterine cancer. One study found that Black women tend to be diagnosed with later-stage, more severe forms of endometrial cancer (which is a form of uterine cancer) than white women.

The same study found that Black women are more likely to have worse outcomes at each stage and type of endometrial cancer.

In addition to the harmful chemicals in hair products, there are other reasons Black women are at a higher risk for uterine cancer:

Differences in health status. Black women may have different health conditions and genetic risks, compared to other groups of women. These may put Black women at an unequal risk for certain cancers.

Experts found that Black women also have a higher risk of cancer coming back than white women for some forms of cancer, like endometrial cancer.

Access to care and health coverage. While studies show that more women of different races get equal care today, not everyone receives the same treatment. Black women may not have access to the same life-saving medical treatment or care that other groups of women do.

One study found that Black women with endometrial cancer were less likely than white women with that type of cancer to get higher-quality care. Experts form this study also found that Black women were more likely to die from endometrial cancer than women of other races.

Another study looked at wait times for care, and how they relate to your overall outcome and survival with uterine cancer. Experts found that the longer time between diagnosis to surgery, the worse your chances of survival. If Black women aren’t given proper resources or health care access, they’ll be less likely to get a diagnosis and begin treatment. This can have serious impacts on Black women’s survival rates.

Socioeconomic status. Other data shows that Black women may be more vulnerable to bad health outcomes because of higher rates of unemployment, lower income levels, and other social and economic factors.

The study didn’t record specific information on certain brands or ingredients that the women used. But experts did say many of the chemicals in straightening products may be harmful. You may be at a higher risk for uterine cancer if your hair straightening products include:

  • Parabens
  • Bisphenol A
  • Metals
  • Formaldehyde