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Study: Hair relaxers raise black women's risk of fibroids

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Millions of African-American women chemically straighten their hair, but could those chemicals raise their risk of uterine fibroids?

At Hair Rox Salon in College Park, owner Dana Roxette has witnessed a kind of hair revolution. Ten years ago, she says, 95 percent of her African-American clients chemically-relaxed their hair.  Today, only a quarter of her clients do.  The rest are going natural.  

Roxette says, "So, they can wear their hair curly like mine, wavy like mine, and go to the gym.  And on the weekend, if they want to go out, they can go out and press their hair like it's relaxed."

But stylist Maya Cooper tried natural hair and found it hard to keep up.  Cooper explains, "I sweat easily, and because it was longer, it was just a little more work than I wanted it to do."

Cooper has been chemically-straightening her hair for 25 years.  So she was intrigued -- and a little alarmed -- by a 2012 Boston University study that found black women who use hair relaxers are at slightly higher risk of developing uterine fibroids:

They're non-cancerous tumors that grow in the wall of the uterus, causing heavy bleeding, painful periods and are a leading cause of hysterectomies.

According to the National Women's Health Information Center, African-American women are three times more likely to develop fibroids than other women.

And they get them younger, and the tumors grow faster, and are more likely to cause symptoms.

Maya Cooper says, "I'm definitely concerned, because I use a relaxer, so I would like to know if it's something that's going to affect my health."      

But Dr. Carol Hogue, a professor of epidemiology at Emory's Rollins School of Public Health, says the link between fibroids and hair relaxers is not very strong.

Hogue says, "There is an impact, it is very small."

Hogue says the Boston University study was well done, following 23,000 women, but,  "When they examine the difference between women of African ancestry, and women of more European ancestry, the hair relaxer association practically disappears."

So for now, Hogue says there's no smoking gun, "But uterine fibroids are a big problem among African-American women." She believes women should pay attention to Vitamin D deficiency, weight and lack of exercise.   

In fact, according to the CDC, 42 percent of Black women are overweight. A few years back, researchers questioned women working at Grady Hospital about the challenges to being active.

Dr. Hogue says, "One of the biggest barriers they felt, to doing the exercise they wanted to do, was concern about how to get their hair back in place, perspiration, etc."

Dana Roxette says she'd like to see more research into this subject, for her clients, "So they would have the choice.  Should I relax my hair, or should I go natural?   And if I do get a relaxer, am I risking my health?"

Because Roxette says her clients, "are not only my business, but they're my family, too."

One of the leading hair care manufacturer trade associations is reacting to the study.  In a statement to FOX 5, the American Health and Beauty Aids Institute says,  "Based on our industry information, we have not seen or received any reports of a link to perms and uterine fibroids.  Extensive research is conducted in product development to ensure these products are safe with the best results obtained by utilizing licensed salon professionals for haircare services. I believe the chance for any link to perms and uterine fibroids (if any) is so slim, there is little need for concern," Geri Duncan Jones, Executive Director, American Health & Beauty Aids Institute (AHBAI)."

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