World News

Thousands of Black women claim hair relaxers gave them cancer

SHEILA BUSH, a cosmetologist, was lounging in the recliner at her St. Louis-area home last winter when an advertisement from a law firm flashed up on her television screen, urging viewers to call a toll-free number if they or a loved one had used hair relaxers and been diagnosed with uterine cancer.

After seeing the ad three times, Ms. Bush, who said she had used hair relaxers every six weeks for most of her life and was diagnosed with uterine cancer about a decade ago, decided to pick up the phone.

The ads Ms. Bush saw, on television as well as on her social media feeds, were part of a nationwide effort by law firms to sign up Black women to file lawsuits alleging at least a dozen cosmetic companies, including L’Oreal and Revlon, sold hair relaxers containing chemicals that increased the risk of developing uterine cancer — and failed to warn customers.

The recruitment campaign launched in October last year, days after a US National Institutes of Health (NIH) study found an association, though not a causal link, between frequent use of chemical hair relaxers and uterine cancer. Hair straighteners such as L’Oreal’s Dark & Lovely and Revlon’s Creme of Nature are marketed overwhelmingly to women of color, according to the lawsuits.

Some of the ads show Black women applying hair products before cutting to a summary of the NIH study’s findings.

L’Oreal and Revlon told Reuters their products are subject to rigorous safety reviews. The companies noted that the authors of the NIH study said they didn’t draw definitive conclusions about the cause of the women’s cancers and that more research is warranted.

“We do not believe the science supports a link between chemical hair straighteners or relaxers and cancer,” Revlon said. L’Oreal added that it is committed to offering the best products “for all skin and hair types, all genders, all identities, all cultures, all ages” and that its hair relaxers have a “rich heritage and history” originating with Black inventors and entrepreneurs.

Namaste, which markets ORS Olive Oil relaxers, said all ingredients in its products are approved for cosmetic use by US regulators. “We do not believe the plaintiffs have shown, or will be able to show, that the use of Namaste hair relaxer products caused the injuries that they allege in their complaints,” a lawyer for Namaste and its parent company, Dabur India, said in an email response to Reuters.

The other companies declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests.

The success of the legal claims will hinge on demonstrating the products were harmful and that the companies knew, or should have known, of the danger and failed to warn customers.

But the cases face hurdles: In addition to the potential limitations of the NIH study, plaintiffs are suing multiple companies, and if women lack receipts, they may struggle to provide evidence that they used specific products.

Ben Crump, who represented the family of George Floyd, the Black man murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, and another lawyer, Diandra “Fu” Debrosse Zimmerman, filed the first hair relaxer lawsuit on behalf of a Missouri woman, Jenny Mitchell, shortly after the NIH study was published.

Since then, more than 7,000 similar lawsuits have been filed by many plaintiffs’ lawyers. The cases have been consolidated in a Chicago federal court as part of a multidistrict litigation proceeding (MDL), a procedure designed to more efficiently manage lawsuits filed in multiple jurisdictions.

Even though the legal claims asserted in the lawsuits don’t allege racial discrimination, Mr. Crump says the cases should be viewed as “essentially civil rights issues.”

For Black women, “it’s projected on them that they have to live up to some kind of European standard of beauty,” Mr. Crump, who represents plaintiffs in high-profile racial discrimination cases and is a regular on cable news, said in an interview.

Ms. Bush, aged 69, told Reuters about being mocked by the white children in the schoolyard of her St. Louis school for her “cotton” hair, a common derogatory term used for Black hair texture.

“You felt as though you didn’t belong, or weren’t as good as they were,” said Ms. Bush, who was born in 1954, the year a landmark US Supreme Court decision found racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

The vast majority of the plaintiffs are women of color, according to Jayne Conroy, a lawyer whose firm has filed at least 550 hair relaxer cases, adding that attorneys don’t have full demographic data on their clients.

A master complaint filed in the court proceeding consolidating the lawsuits features many examples of advertisements that plaintiffs contend improperly took advantage of historical racial discrimination. One L’Oreal ad touted “how beautiful Black hair can be,” the complaint said.

The complaint seeks unspecified damages.

Framing the litigation as a civil rights issue could resonate with jurors beyond arguments over complex product liability claims, said Adam Zimmerman, a professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law who studies mass tort litigation.

The cases come at a time Black people are increasingly embracing natural hairstyles. At least 23 states have passed legislation aimed at protecting people from hair discrimination in the workplace and public schools. The US House of Representatives passed similar legislation last year that stalled in the Senate.

Uterine cancer is the most common form of female reproductive system cancer and rising in the U.S., especially among Black women, according to the NIH.

The American Cancer Society estimates there will be about 66,000 new cases of uterine cancer diagnosed this year in the United States, less than a quarter of the number of 297,790 new cases of invasive breast cancer, and more than three times the 19,710 cases of ovarian cancer.

The NIH study of more than 33,000 women found that those who reported using hair straightening products more than four times in the previous year were more than twice as likely to develop uterine cancer as those who did not. A total of 378 women in the study developed uterine cancer. Black women used the products more frequently than others, the study found.

The researchers did not collect information on the ingredients of specific products the women used, the NIH said. But Dr. Alexandra White, the lead author, told Reuters in response to written questions that hair straighteners have been found to include phthalates, parabens, cyclosiloxanes and metals, and may release formaldehyde when heated. She declined interview requests through a spokesperson. — Reuters