The Sunday Mail
Prince Mushawevato and Theseus Shambare
Having looks to die for is usually the holy grail, particularly for most women.
They often say vanity is every woman’s deepest desire. Nowadays, creams, pills and injectable chemicals are part of an inexhaustible combo that is increasingly being used to enhance beauty.
Hair products, creams and chemicals similarly form an indispensable beauty toolkit to tame unwanted kinky hair in favour of the “straightened” modern look.
However, it seems, behind this insatiable quest for beauty lurks real danger that is now being flagged by scientists.
It has since emerged that relaxers and other hair-straightening chemical products are linked to rising incidence of uterine cancer. This is the most common cancer of the female reproductive system.
While most black women have used or use hair-straightening products for one reason or another, many are oblivious of the dangers of unapproved and untested products in particular.
A research conducted in the United States and published in the “Journal of the National Cancer Institute” in October this year found a connection between using hair straighteners such as chemical relaxers, including pressing products, and increased risk of uterine cancer.
The products are also associated with an increased risk of hormone-related cancers, including breast and ovarian cancers, as they contain a dangerous combination of compounds that include steroids, hydroquinone and mercury.
According to the US’ National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), at least four out of five black women use either skin or hair products that pose serious health challenges.
“Nearly 34 000 women in the United States, aged 35 to 74, who use products, including perms, dyes, relaxers and straighteners were diagnosed with cancer.
“We estimated that 1,64 percent of women who never used hair straighteners would go on to develop uterine cancer by the age of 70, but for frequent users, that risk goes up to 4,05 percent,” the study leader, Dr Alexandra White of the NIEHS, said in a statement.
“Some of the hair products might also contain other chemicals that have been linked to cancer such as formaldehyde. They might be absorbed through the scalp and have oestrogen-like properties in the body.”
The Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe (MCAZ) — the licensing and regulatory board that tests products of banned substances — requested more time before issuing a statement.
“This is an important issue, which, as an authority, we would want to comprehensively discuss. I will be able to give you finer details next week on Monday (tomorrow),” MCAZ spokesperson Davidson Kaiyo told The Sunday Mail Society.
However, deputy director for non-communicable diseases (NCD) and national cancer co-ordinator in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Dr Justice Mudavanhu, advised the public to be on the lookout for any enhancing products that are likely to have negative health outcomes.
“Currently, there is nothing I have from the Government side, but what I can say is that researches are not immune from scrutiny. We would need to engage our researchers and all stakeholders involved to come up with a proper position,” he said.
“There have been many findings in the past that were later reversed after flaws were discovered. But for healthy living, people need to be mindful of what they eat, what they smoke and even what they apply to their skin. Cancer has become a ravaging enemy, which we need to avoid at all cost.”
Maud Chikurune, an avid user of beauty products, said she was concerned.
“I have never had any problems with any of the hair products that I use. But my worry is that the report indicates complications may develop later on in life. I am planning to go for cancer screening,” she said.
For Sunningdale-based Mai Panashe, the only challenge she has encountered from using relaxers are sores on her scalp.
“I have been using relaxers for the past six years. The major problem that I have had with some of the products are sores on my scalp. However, I have swiftly changed brands each time I react or start reacting,” she said.
Chenai Ziyemba has a similar challenge.
Each time she uses a tinting chemical, her scalp itches.
“I have been using a tinting chemical (name withheld) for the past four years. Every time I apply the chemical, my scalp starts itching.
‘‘When I scrub the itching areas, I then develop some pimples. I am now wondering if it is cancer building up.”
Local health experts warn that some beauty products could lead to liver and kidney failure.
Dr Takunda Wingwiri, a general practitioner, said more needs to be understood on how these products impact the reproductive system, among other health areas.
“When research is carried out, there are many things taken into consideration to deduce the cause of any ailment. In this case, it seems they have done their part to avoid public panic, but there is need to do other rigorous tests using people from different races and under different conditions so as to come up with an informed position,” he said.
Dr Gift Chambati, who practises as an obstetrician and gynaecologist in Harare, also agrees.
“While it is good to warn people against something that has health implications, it is incumbent upon one to have the backing of research. And, as I pointed out, findings have to be corroborated,” explained Dr Chambati.
“Any opinion would have an impact on people’s lives and, obviously, the industry. It will cause a lot of anxiety, fear and worry. Therein lies the problem. The way I see it, the evidence is not highly conclusive. Even the authors point that out.”
He says uterine cancer is prevalent in women post-child-bearing stage and the causes widely differ.
Dr Patience Mba, who is a director and oncologist at the Cancer Health Clinic, concurs.
“Cancer is a problem that researchers need to play their part for the benefit of end users of any chemicals. We specialise in treating cancer.
‘‘There are researchers who we depend on and these need to do clinical tests to ascertain those findings. As it stands, we still view them as claims because nothing has been provided to us,” she said.
A hairdresser in Harare, who only identified herself as Mai Tasha, said there was no need to panic.
“This is an easy trade as long as you have good communication skills, combined with creativity, when styling your clients. Since I started my practice, I never heard anything about these products causing any diseases. In fact, even our mothers used these chemicals but never had any challenges,” said Mai Tasha.
Her Victoria Falls-based counterpart, Pumuzile Ncube, said the problem might only be peculiar in Western countries.
“I am not moved by such claims. These beauty products have been there for long, and so have been these diseases.
‘‘There is no real science to connect the two,” she said.
However, MCAZ has since banned some hair and skin-lightening products.
Unscrupulous traders smuggling the goods from neighbouring countries, particularly South Africa and Zambia, have created challenges for the authorities.
The long arm of the law, however, always catches up with the culprits.
A 42-year-old Victoria Falls woman was recently imprisoned for three months after she was arrested for smuggling skin-lightening products from Zambia.
Experts say several factors lead women to use hair-straightening products. They include Eurocentric standards of beauty.
Others consider frequent change of hairstyles as a status symbol or a way of self-expression.
This trend is often normalised in women at an early age through media products that seem to associate long and straight hair with success. Add light skin to the matrix.
Hollywood celebrities are viewed as role models.
The situation is not made any easier by men who seem to prefer light-skinned ladies, commonly referred to as “yellow bone”, in street lingo.
Unfortunately, a light complexion that is acquired after skin bleaching often results in an uneven skin tone.