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Rethinking Beauty, AGAIN—

A new research study links hair color and straightener to increased cancer risk.

There's been a lot of chatter on social media about beauty, beauty routines, and image maintenance since the safer-at-home social distancing rules began. Without access to salons, many women's hair, nails, and skin routines have taken a major hit. Social media has been flooded with images of root grow out, unruly locks, overgrown cuts, and bed head. Not to mention chipped polish, and gel and tip grow out. And why not? Whose sensibilities would we offend at home, when we rarely got out of our pajamas during that first 30 days!

Some women have decided to let their grey come in completely, and others can't wait to get back to the salon. I don't have much grey yet, and generally don't color my hair. I'm letting my grey grow in, with some fun recent swerves of washout purple!

To color or not to color as we get older is a personal choice. However, there is some new research that you may want to consider before you open that box of hair dye, or you jump back into your stylist's chair.

The results from a recent study, published in December of 2019, by the International Journal of Cancer revealed some troubling news. If you have a family history of breast cancer (this was a study of the sisters of women with breast cancer), you have an increased risk of developing breast cancer if you use hair dye. Women who used hair dye—even once— in the 12 months before the study, had a 9% increase in the risk of developing breast cancer than women who did not use hair dye.

The additional results are shocking for Black women.

"African American women . . . who used any permanent dye in the previous 12 months had a 45% higher risk of developing breast cancer compared with women who did not use hair dye."

That is an eye-popping number! A 45% risk increase???

Hair straightening products were also included in the study. With this product, the results were the same for all races. "These chemical products were associated with an 18% higher risk of breast cancer in women who used them in the 12 months before the study period. The more often women used straightener, the higher the risk. Women who used the products every five to eight weeks had a 31% higher risk of going on to develop breast cancer compared with nonusers."

These are crazy-big risk increases!!

Considering that the average woman, in her regular routine, uses up to 12 beauty products each day, the possibility of being exposed to dangerous chemicals is high. The FDA doesn't test the chemicals in dyes and beauty products for safety. They are only tested for short-term skin irritation, not long-term harm. Some hair care products have over 5000 chemicals that are known hormone disruptors and have cancer-causing effects in animals.

The chemical and pharmaceutical industries have a history of developing, delivering, and prescribing products to women, that are supposed to keep us young, firm, sexy, pretty, desirable, calm, and compliant— without proper testing and safety protocols. The more things change the more they remain the same.

If you have a sister who has suffered from breast cancer, you might want to consider claiming your wisdom-greys when they appear. Accepting our grey is one step in embracing the changes of Regency—the years from 45-70—when our experience and wisdom are beginning to coalesce, potentially transforming us into our most authentic and powerful selves. This is an opportunity to claim our sovereignty. Aging is natural and there is power in claiming our hair, our bodies, and ourselves, for ourselves, resisting the cultural ideal of beauty that is based on women retaining no value after age 40.

All of this makes me think of Medusa. Medusa, famous for her snakes-as-hair image—in one of the many myths surrounding her— was so beautiful that Poseidon raped her, in Athena's temple. She was then cursed by Athena to have snakes for hair and the power to turn men to stone with a glance. The power of her hair, (which was noted to be her most glorious feature), was changed from seductive to fearsomely power-filled. Athena's curse meant her suffering would be revenged on any man who looked at her again. The transformation of Medusa's power from that of seductive, youthful beauty to mature raw, fearsome rage reflects, in part, the depth and breadth of women's experience.

Medusa's early mythology also refers to her as a Gorgon. A Gorgon is a metaphor for raw elemental power; female power outside of the accepted classical Greek universe. She was one of the three Gorgon sisters. Medusa was a dangerous menacing force, representing "the feminine other," a dark force that had to be controlled, warded off, or vanquished. One striking feature of her portrayal in ancient art is that she is always forward-facing, looking straight at the viewer, as a direct challenge, with her unruly, unconventional, power-filled snake hair. With the exception of the Oracle at Delphi, women held little public or political power in Greek antiquity. Medusa's female power, fueled by rage—was beyond the constraints of Greek acceptability. She was a threat that was beheaded. The protective power within Medusa's image was so potent that both Zeus and Athena placed her image on their shields. Today, the Medusa myth—the original nasty woman— is still used to denigrate and control powerful women, such as Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Many women who live outside of the cultural boundaries of acceptability, (which includes women in Regency, 45-70), are taking steps toward claiming their power that lives in the unknown, outside of the accepted cultural definition of beauty. By claiming our grey hair and aging bodies, we may avoid exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, and we might also begin to embrace the power of our inner Medusa. Women who chose to embrace this time of life, including their grey, wild, sometimes more coarse and curly hair are venturing into what comes next.

Beauty is ephemeral. It is supposed to be. A sunset, a toddler, a rose, fall leaves, or a full moon, are moments that we experience as individual threads in our tapestries. That's why they take our breath away. To be your most authentic self is beautiful. Let your snakes writhe free.


Dr. A


Harvard Women's Health Watch. Harvard Medical School, Harvard Health Publishing, April 2020.

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