“You got this,” Jackie Provost would tell herself when her stylist left the hair relaxer on too long, gritting her teeth and gripping her chair as it burned her scalp. The monthly two-hour, $120 hair appointment was the easiest way for Provost to smooth and straighten her thick, textured hair into a style considered “acceptable” for the workplace. She says she sensed the pain “wasn’t the best thing.” But it wasn’t until about a decade later when, as a volunteer for the Los Angeles nonprofit Black Women for Wellness (BWW), she wondered whether the chemical-laden relaxer was actually bad for her health.
In 2015, as BWW drafted its report on the health impacts of hair products marketed to black women, Provost learned about how these products often contain what are known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which mimic or interfere with the normal signaling of hormones like estrogen. Studies have linked these chemicals to breast and other cancers. Provost had lost both her grandmothers to cancer; both had ovarian cancer, and her maternal grandmother had also had breast cancer. “We just have this higher risk of [cancer], and I’m adding these chemicals,” she says. “Why am I adding a predisposition for something that I don’t have to?”