Study Connects Use of Lye-Based Hair Products to Increased Breast Cancer Risk

December 10, 2022
Study Connects Use of Lye-Based Hair Products to Increased Breast Cancer Risk

Recent findings from Boston University's Black Women’s Health Study have revealed that women who heavily use lye-based hair products could expose themselves to a greater risk of breast cancer. Lye is a metal hydroxide used in some hair products that can expose women to carcinogens through scalp absorption. The study published in observed the hair product use of 59,000 black women over the course of twenty-five years to conclude the dangerous effects heavy use of lye-based hair products can have.

While the Black Women’s Health Study did not investigate different racial factors that can contribute to breast cancer from lye-based hair products, it is known that black women are more likely to use hair products than other racial groups. The exposed risk of breast cancer through lye-based hair products is serious because black women are more likely to develop aggressive breast cancers that can result in death. 

What is Lye?

Hair products have a history of causing cancer through endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and lye-based hair products are no exception. Lye, otherwise known as sodium hydroxide, is an odorless hydroxide known for being caustic. It can come in the form of liquid, flakes, or crystals and has been used in products such as soaps, rayons, paper, explosives, dyes, etc. Lye is dangerous to the touch, causing immense harm to anyone who comes into direct contact with it. For that reason, many workers will wear protective gear when using it.

Some hair products also use lye, which can cause immense harm in the form of burns. These burns can result in women being exposed to carcinogens that can cause breast cancer. This is a form of cancer that involves the cells of the breasts to grow uncontrollably and cause a tumor. It is the second most prevalent cancer among women (behind skin cancer) and can cause thick lumps on the breast, inverted nipples, and peeling skin on the breast.

Who Was Involved in the Breast Cancer Risk Study?

The breast cancer risk associated with lye-based hair products was discovered by Boston University’s Black Women’s Health Study. This research study was designed to discover health risks associated with hair product use from black women, with lye-based products eventually being discovered to increase breast cancer risk. 

The study involved 59,000 self-identified African American women aged 21 to 69 sending in questionnaires on a bi-yearly basis regarding their health and hair product use from 1997 until 2017. The team at Boston University used the information found from the study to make informed hypotheses on the effect hair product use could have on causing cancer. In this case, their study found the heavy use of lye-based hair products could lead to an increased risk of breast cancer.

How Did the Study Identify Hair Product Users?

The Black Women’s Health Study began with all of the women interested in taking part in the study completing a self-administered health questionnaire. It revealed information about their medical and reproductive history as well as demographic and lifestyle factors that could affect the study. The initial questionnaire also elicited responses from the participants about their hair product use.

The following are the questions posed to the Black Women’s Health Study Participants to see what hair products they used:

  • Have you ever used a chemical hair straightener?
  • At what age did you first use chemical hair straighteners?
  • How often do you (or did you) use chemical hair straighteners?
  • In total, how many years have you used hair straighteners?
  • How many times have you experienced burns (a break in the skin, not just tingling) during the application of chemical straighteners?
  • Which of the following chemical hair straighteners have you used most often? (lye, no-lye, don’t know)

After discovering the baseline for hair product use, the study would send participants a questionnaire every other year to receive updates on their medical history and to determine if they showed symptoms of cancer. Using the information gleaned over twenty years of study, Boston University could come to a conclusion on the effect of hair products on a woman’s health.

Lye-Based Hair Product Users Have a Greater Risk of Breast Cancer Diagnosis

According to the findings of the study, women who exhibited heavy use of lye-based hair products over the course of fifteen years had a 30% increased risk of breast cancer. Of the women involved in the study, 2,311 of the women developed breast cancer, including invasive breast cancers and ductal carcinoma. The breast cancer cases were identified through self-reports, death certificates, medical records, pathology reports, and cancer registry records. 

The study found that lye-based hair relaxers specifically put women more at risk of a breast cancer diagnosis. No indication was found that non-lye hair relaxers represented a significant uptick in breast cancer diagnosis, but lye-based products did increase breast cancer risk.

How Do Lye-Based Hair Products Cause Breast Cancer?

Lye-based hair relaxers expose women to hormonally active compounds through dermal absorption or scalp burns, which can cause breast cancer. They contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as phthalates and parabens, as well as carcinogenic chemicals like formaldehyde. 

These chemicals, which have properties that can cause cancer, have been found in female breast cancer tumors. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals have been found in urine samples of black women more than white women, which can speak to the increased risk of breast cancer for black women. 

The Dangers of Breast Cancer for Black Women

The study's findings regarding breast cancer risk for black women using lye-based hair products are vital because of the prevalence of hair product use in black women. They could feel pressure to adhere to eurocentric beauty standards, which call for straight hair. This has led to black women using hair relaxers from a young age. Consistent and heavy use of lye-based hair relaxers could expose women to breast cancer risk.

According to a study conducted by the Cancer Journal for Clinicians, black women are 40% more likely to die from breast cancer than white women. Black women develop more aggressive forms of breast cancer, with societal factors like poorer health care and diagnosis delays contributing to higher black women's breast cancer death rates. The Black Women’s Health Study also found that 95% of the participants in their study reported the use of lye-based hair products that can expose them to cancer risk.

Contact Dolman Law Group for Help With Your Hair Product Breast Cancer Claim

Dolman Law Group is a personal injury law firm that has a history of helping victims of cancer caused by hair products. This is a product liability issue, as manufacturers failed to warn consumers of the negative effects associated with their products. If you suffered breast cancer from using lye-based hair products, we can help you assess your damages, determine the liable party, and negotiate a settlement with the at-fault party’s insurance company. Contact Dolman Law Group today for a free consultation to see how we can help you recover fair compensation for your damages, such as medical bills, lost earning potential, and loss of enjoyment of life.

Matthew Dolman

Clearwater Personal Injury and Insurance Attorney

This article was written and reviewed by Matthew Dolman. Matt has been a practicing civil trial, personal injury, products liability, and mass tort lawyer since 2004. He has represented over 11,000 injury victims and has served as lead counsel in over 1000 lawsuits. Matt is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum for resolving individual cases in excess or $1 million and $2 million, respectively. He has also been selected by his colleagues as a Florida Superlawyer and as a member of Florida’s Legal Elite on multiple occasions. Further, Matt has been quoted in the media numerous times and is a sought-after speaker on a variety of legal issues and topics.

Learn More