Black Women are Joining Lawsuits En Masse as Research Reveals Hair Relaxer Causes Cancer

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Dec. 6 2023, Published 1:08 p.m. ET

A female oncologist sits across from her Black female cancer patient
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The Gist:

  • Multiple research studies have discovered a link between certain hair relaxer products and uterine cancer.
  • At least 12 companies, including L’Oreal and Revlon, are the subjects of lawsuits for failing to warn users of the risk of cancer, per Reuters.
  • Research into hair care products, primarily used by Black women, has revealed a link between multiple types of cancers as well.
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You could be forgiven for losing track of the abundance of research studies investigating the link between certain hair care products and various forms of cancer. But ever since research funded by the National Institutes of Health connecting the use of commercially-available hair relaxers with the prevalence of uterine cancer was published in October 2022, Black women around the U.S. have been joining lawsuits to hold companies accountable for their failure to notify users of the potential cancer risks, according to Reuters.

Hair relaxers, also known as straighteners, are used mostly by Black women to chemically straighten their hair, according to the Black Women’s Health Study (BWHS) conducted by Boston University researchers. Since the initial lawsuit was filed in 2022, Reuters reported several thousand more were filed by women who used hair products from companies that neglected to disclose their long-term risks.

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A Black woman sits on the couch watching television with a surprised look on her face
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Lawsuits allege companies failed to warn users about the dangers of long-term hair relaxer use.

Jenny Mitchell, the plaintiff in the first lawsuit in 2022, claimed to begin using hair relaxers at age 10 and was diagnosed with uterine cancer at age 28. Per the lawsuit, treatments are done every 1-2 months "for decades," a concerning reality for older women who have undergone such a routine.

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As noted in the Reuters report, it wasn't until discovering a commercial on television that many learned of efforts by law firms to hold companies accountable for neglecting to provide adequate warnings on the labels of hair care products linked to uterine cancer. L’Oreal and Revlon are two of the prominent names among a list of more than a dozen such companies targeted in lawsuits, per Reuters.

The research behind the lawsuit is plentiful, even as Revlon denies such a link between hair relaxers and cancer, per Reuters.

To wit: the Sister Study referenced in the Reuters report and published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute indicates the fate of users of these products has become increasingly bleak over the last 20 years, to the tune of nearly 66,000 new diagnoses and 12,550 deaths.

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Users of hair straightening products, the study found, were about twice as likely to develop uterine cancer compared to those who didn't use such products. Furthermore, when compared to those who don't use hair relaxers, those who used hair relaxers more than four times a year were found to be about 2.5 times more likely to get uterine cancer.

The BWHS, which followed 45,000 women over a period of 22 years, found "statistically significant" evidence of the fate of hair relaxer users. Women who used these products frequently (ie. "more than twice a year or for more than five years") enhanced their risk of developing uterine cancer by more than 50 percent.

As elucidated by the American Cancer Society, while the study didn't find that uterine cancer discriminates by race (i.e. is more prevalent in one race over another), for a product whose majority of users are Black women, the results are troubling.

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An older Black woman with cancer looks at her reflection in the mirror
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Updates: The number of hair relaxer lawsuits has grown from 21 in February 2023 to nearly 8,000 in December 2023.

The Maryland-based Miller & Zois law firm has been providing frequent updates for those interested in the lawsuit.

In October 2023, the firm said that the Food and Drug Administration proposed a new rule banning formaldehyde in hair relaxers. In mid-November, Judge Mary Rowland "upheld the majority of claims" from the plaintiffs, an encouraging sign for the class-action lawsuit. At that point, the number of cases grew to nearly 8,000, compared to 21 cases in February.

On Nov. 28, 2023, the firm reported that "an 11 percent holdback of compensation" was requested by the lawyers on the plaintiffs side as payment for their efforts.

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