The State of Hair Relaxer Market Outside of the U.S.

The hair relaxer market is expected to grow $889.83 million by 2029. What was once a niche hair care product has exerted its dominance across the globe at an alarming rate.

Widely known as hair straighteners or hair smoothing products, hair relaxers have a long, controversial history steeped in class, race and beauty standards. Following a recent spate of lawsuits against manufacturers, it can now add the risk of uterine cancer to the list.

The most active chemicals in relaxing products are sodium hydroxide, ammonium thioglycolate, and sodium thiglycolate. These ingredients break down the cortex layer and change hair texture to appear less kinky. Over time, hair becomes brittle and thins out.

That’s the least of your problems if you’ve been using hair straighteners for years. In 2022, the NIH found a link between hair-relaxing chemicals and increased uterine cancer risk. Black women were found to be the most affected because of the product’s high use in the community.

Along with findings from the study, the hair straightener cancer lawsuit has put massive pressure on cosmetic giants. Lawsuit defendants L’Oreal and Revlon have been urged to pull their products from shelves.

Despite various warnings from pressure groups and activists, the hair relaxer market is booming in Africa.

Endocrine Disruptors 

The study shed light on the effects endocrine disruptors had on the human body. Found in hair straightening chemicals, researchers confirmed what scientific bodies were saying all along. 

There was a direct link between exposure to these chemicals and the onset of uterine and breast tumors. Women who used hair relaxers more than four times a year were at increased risk.

During the year-long Sister Study, self identified black women who used chemical hair straightening products developed uterine cancer at twice the rate that those who didn’t, according to TorHoerman Law.

Manufacturers of chemical hair straighteners are now facing lawsuits from women across the U.S. who developed uterine cancer, breast cancer and other serious health effects.

Endocrine disruptors affect the hormonal system and are harmful to the thyroid gland. A study by the Endocrine Society showed that exposure to some endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) increased over the past 20 years among low-income U.S. women of childbearing age.

Although no correlation was found between their study and the NIH’s Sister Study, the common denominator was EDCs.

Sales Continue to Rise in African Countries

The relationship between Black women and hair relaxers has long been a contentious one. The pressure to fit in sets the bar that much higher.

The tide appears to be turning in the U.S. following thousands of chemical straightening lawsuits. In Africa, it’s still business as usual despite the risk factors.

In May, NBC News investigated companies targeting Africa as other countries, including the U.S., limit the use of formaldehyde in products. The news outlet reported brands touting their chemical hair relaxers chose nations such as Kenya to evade regulations.

NBC quoted L’Oreal’s 2023 annual report stating that emerging markets, including Africa, accounted for a third of the consumer division’s growth. L’Oreal said the lawsuits had “neither legal nor scientific merit” when NBC reached out for comment.

Kenya isn’t the only African country being targeted. Tunisia, South Africa and Cameroon were in the top 8 countries in sales growth for relaxers from 2017 to 2022, Euromonitor found.

#NoMoreLyes in Black Haircare Products

Level Up is a UK-based gender justice organization. Their latest campaign is a petition called #NoMoreLyes calling for beauty brands to remove toxic ingredients from hair relaxers. To date, it has gained more than 6,000 supporters – 3,000 short of its target.

Referring to a specific chemical, lye, the movement cited a study by Oxford University. The study stated that Black women are at a 30% increased risk of breast cancer when using relaxing products containing lye.

The campaign is important on many fronts. Because the products are targeted at Black women, Level Up claims young women are especially vulnerable. They also believe that as long as the products are being sold, Black women are at risk.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the FDA proposed a full ban on harmful chemicals found in hair straightening products. 

South Africa’s National Consumer Commission is keeping an eye on the lawsuits to plan its next step. Daily Maverick also reported that South Africa has been referenced in related US court proceedings.

As for the rest of Africa, only time will tell if they follow suit and execute a full ban on hair-relaxing chemicals.

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