The Heavy Price of Gorgeous Hair: Cancer-Causing Parabens Still Found in Many Products for Black Women

Marie Napoli
4 min readDec 13, 2022

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By Marie Napoli, Founding Partner & Maria Fleming, Associate, Napoli Shkolnik

Have you ever stopped to read the ingredient label on your shampoo? You might notice the list contains parabens. These chemicals are used in thousands of personal care products — and they are known to cause cancer. Parabens are more frequently found in products for afro-textured hair, like hair relaxers and chemical straighteners. In a 2018 study, parabens were found in 72% of hair products made for Black women.

Years of research show that women who used these paraben-containing Black hair products have higher rates of breast cancer and serious reproductive health issues. This is alarming, as more Black women already die of breast cancer than any other ethnic group. A recent study found that parabens increased the growth and spread of a Black breast cancer cell line, which was not seen in white breast cancer cells. Despite these shocking statistics, companies continue to irresponsibly sell these toxic products to Black women.

Why Are Parabens Dangerous?

Parabens are used as a preservative to prevent the growth of mold, fungi and bacteria. They are classified as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). EDCs are compounds that affect the normal functioning of the endocrine system. Notably, they can alter mammary gland development, prolong puberty, and promote the growth, spread and invasiveness of breast cancer cells. They can also make the body vulnerable to second carcinogen exposure.

In some Black communities, the use of hair relaxers begins in childhood. A research study by Mintel showed Black women were most likely to say they used five or more hair products. Early and cumulative lifetime exposure to parabens contributes to the increased lethality of these cancers. Although many companies are now switching to paraben-free formulas, for many long-time users of paraben-containing products, the damage is already done.

FDA Limitations and Labeling Loopholes

The FDA unfortunately does not have the authority to review and approve cosmetics before putting them on the market, nor does it require manufacturers to test their products for safety. The Administration also has many concerning loopholes regarding ingredient labeling.

A study of Black hair products found that 84% of the chemicals detected were not listed on the ingredient label. “Fragrance” is a classic example: this can refer to a wide variety of chemicals, but the FDA does not require companies to disclose which ones because they are considered a “trade secret.” A 2010 study of 17 fragrance products found 14 undisclosed ingredients per product on average, some of which were EDCs.

Another loophole exempts companies from declaring ingredients on products not for retail sale, such as those used in hair salons. Women who get their hair professionally treated are therefore left in the dark about the ingredients of the products their salon uses.

“Good Hair” and Frequent Product Use

How did such harmful products become essentials in Black haircare? Hair discrimination is partly to blame. In a study of 2,000 women working in office settings, 25% of them ranked natural hairstyles lowest for job readiness. The survey also found that 80% of Black women felt they had to change their hair to be accepted at work. In schools, many dress codes have bans on natural hairstyles.

Whether treated or kept natural, Black women should not have to sacrifice their health for the hair that they want. With so many safer ingredients out there, it is unacceptable that companies continue to use toxic parabens in their formulas. It is time for the FDA to close up labeling loopholes and start evaluating all hair products.

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As a founding partner of Napoli Shkolnik PLLC, Marie Napoli plays an integral role in achieving the multi-million-dollar verdicts and settlements in the firm’s many practice areas, including the $1.3+ billion settlement in the New York Opioid Jury Trial, the jury verdict for plaintiffs in the Ohio Opioid Trial (the federal bellwether trial against national pharmacy chains),the $640 million Flint Water Crisis agreement, and the $1 billion settlement in the World Trade Center litigation.

Maria Fleming is an associate in the firm’s Complex Litigation Department, working out of the Cleveland, Ohio office. She handles motion writing and depositions involving the opioid crisis across the country. Most recently she served as plaintiff trial counsel in the National Prescription Opiate Litigation MDL Bellwether trials of Lake and Trumbull Counties. In this role she was responsible for all of Plaintiffs’ exhibits to be introduced in trial and submitted to the jury. Additionally Ms. Fleming played an integral role in the National Prescription Opiate Litigation MDL Bellwether settlements for Cuyahoga and Summit Counties in Ohio.

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Marie Napoli

A Partner at Napoli Shkolnik, Marie Napoli has over 25 years of experience with personal injury, med malpractice, mass tort, and complex litigation matters.