Many women frequently use chemical hair straighteners and relaxers to straighten their hair. Studies have revealed a possible link between some of these chemicals and uterine cancer. This has led to a flurry of lawsuits filed by women and their families.
What Are Experts Saying About the Risk?
The new study says that the general risk of developing uterine (also called endometrial) cancer by the age of 70 is 1.64 percent, but this goes up to 4.05 percent for those who frequently use hair straighteners. The study defined “frequent use” as more than four times a year.
Black women, in particular, are more likely to use hair straighteners regularly, resulting in an elevated risk for this demographic. Many of these women use hair straighteners well beyond four times a year. The study linked hair straighteners, not other products such as dyes, bleach, or perming products.
In the study, 60 percent of the participants who reported using straighteners in the previous year self-identified as Black women. The study did not include cis men or trans women, as a study has not been conducted on whether these chemicals might increase reproductive cancer risk in those populations.
The lifetime risk of uterine cancer remains low. It’s a rare form of cancer. However, other studies have also associated straighteners with an increased risk of breast cancer, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids.
Experts believe that the root cause of the risk is parabens, bisphenol A, metals, and formaldehyde found in straighteners. Users also risk burns or lesions on the scalp with the use of straighteners if not used carefully, which may introduce chemicals into the user’s system.
This is particularly the case if the user combines chemical straighteners with straightening devices that use heat. Because hair straighteners have to be applied close to the root, it is challenging to use without bringing them into contact with the user’s scalp.
Are Black Women at Higher Risk?
As mentioned, 60 percent of the study participants who used straighteners identified themselves as Black women. Black women are also twice as likely to die of endometrial cancer as white women, partly because they are more prone to aggressive forms of the cancer.
However, in this case, Black women are at higher risk simply because they typically use hair straighteners more than white and Asian women. The reason for this is, in no small part, discrimination commonly faced by Black women with natural hair.
In 2020, studies by Michigan State University showed that Black women with natural hairstyles were considered less professional and competent and received fewer recommendations for interviews compared to white women and Black women with straightened hair.
Hair discrimination often starts earlier, too. For example, in 2017, two Black girls were removed from extracurricular activities, barred from prom, and threatened with suspension over their braids. Another example involved a five-year-old boy with braids.
Discrimination places Black women in a difficult position. If they want to advance in their careers, they often have to sacrifice the health of their hair and even subject themselves to cancer. School discrimination leads to girls as young as nine and ten straightening their hair. Parents often feel they must straighten their child’s hair to protect them from bullies and prejudiced dress codes. This means that Black girls usually start straightening their hair younger and being exposed to straightening chemicals.
If there is indeed a link between hair straightening products and uterine cancer (as well as other issues, including scalp burns), these women risk their health to conform to societal pressures. In late 2022 the Senate killed a federal bill to ban hair discrimination.
The primary argument against such laws (which several states have passed) is that a person can change their hair. However, if changing one’s hair increases one’s risk of cancer, it may become clearer that we need immediate protection from this type of discrimination.
Is There a Class Action Lawsuit?
Several victims have filed class action lawsuits for the harm suffered from straightening chemicals. One proposes to target L’Oréal and others in British Columbia, Canada. One of the representative plaintiffs in the case is a woman diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 15. She believes and claims that using hair straighteners from a young age may have contributed to her cancer. This hasn’t yet been certified.
Victims have also filed lawsuits in some U.S. states. A group of lawyers asked to consolidate the cases into multidistrict litigation In Illinois. This means one judge would rule on all all evidence to promote consistency and streamline discovery. This is different from a class action suit because each claimant still gets their own proceedings after the initial litigation phase concludes.
How Many People Filed Lawsuits?
Most of the lawsuits filed in the U.S. are by individuals who developed uterine or other reproductive system cancers after using these products extensively.
Thousands of victims will likely file lawsuits. While uterine cancer is statistically rare, it still affects many people. Some victims are also filing suits over other cancers of the reproductive system.
Jenny Mitchell, a Missouri resident with uterine cancer who had to have a full hysterectomy at 28, filed the first suit within days of the study’s release. She started using straighteners at the age of 10.
At least nine suits were filed in the first month after the study was released. Eight explicitly cited the study as evidence that their client was impacted by using hair straighteners.
As of late January 2023, the number of lawsuits filed increased to 54, lending strength to the claim and increasing the likelihood that the court will consolidate them into an MDL.
Which Brands Will Lawsuits Affect?
The risk cited in the study was not associated with a particular brand, however some affected manufacturers may include:
- Namaste Laboratories
- Strength of Nature
- SoftSheen Carson
L’Oréal, being a larger company, is being particularly targeted. In addition to alleging that the products are detrimental to health, plaintiffs and lawyers are also making a case that the aggressive marketing of these products, especially to Black women, constitutes a failure to warn. A likely counter-argument from these manufacturers would be that there was no proof of the link to uterine cancer before the study.
However, certain chemicals in hair straighteners cause reproductive system issues, and studies found the link to breast cancer earlier. The scientific evidence is strong enough for a potential liability suit, but plaintiffs must demonstrate that these companies could have reasonably predicted this risk.
The Personal Care Products Council, which represents 90 percent of the beauty products industry, made a statement arguing that the study was flawed and did not prove that the products increased the risk of cancer. Instead, they argued that the demographic features of people who straighten their hair were the true association.
Examples of Suits Filed
One suit shows the extent of the issue: Alicia Smith, of Euclid, Ohio, was diagnosed with uterine cancer at 43. She has no family history of cancer but started using hair straighteners at 13. She had to have her uterus and fallopian tubes removed and is suing in part because she can no longer have children.
Note that uterine cancer diagnoses almost always occur over 45, and many women in these suits are younger, pointing even more strongly to a connection. The average age at diagnosis is 60. Most women diagnosed with uterine cancer are, thus, past their reproductive years. On the other hand, some of these women were still within child rearing age. The youngest victims so far was only 15, pointing towards the many adolescent girls using these products.
Have Any Trials or Settlements Concluded?
Not yet. Victims filed the first few cases at the end of October 2022, and so far, none have reached a conclusion or gone to court. This is, of course, a typical timeframe. Because of this, we don’t have any precedents to determine whether the companies will ultimately be held responsible.
There is, thus, the possibility that the study will be proved flawed, and the companies will be able to use that to avoid liability. However, there is also a possibility they will have to pay out significant settlements and likely place health warnings on their products. At this point, there is no guarantee which way the litigation will go, but the more support the claim receives, the more difficult it will be to refute.
What Is Likely to Happen?
First of all, regardless of the outcome of any suits, hair relaxer sales are already dropping. They started declining before the study for two reasons: fewer salon visits during COVID and an increasing number of Black women refusing to straighten their hair. Sales have declined for at least a decade. The study is likely to accelerate the trend.
Even if more data disproves the connection, the trend is unlikely to reverse. Market forces may solve this problem if litigation does not. According to one owner of a salon catering to Black women, the percentage using relaxers has declined from 90 percent to closer to 25 percent. Other women are ditching chemical straighteners in favor of using presses and other gentler means of obtaining straight hair.
Laws passed to prevent hair discrimination are almost guaranteed to reduce relaxer use, as many Black women are using straighteners not out of choice but because they feel an obligation. They will also reduce the issue of younger Black women straightening their hair or having it straightened by parents.
White women, who already use the products less, are even more likely to stop using them based on these reports since they are not typically under much social pressure to straighten their hair and, thus, less likely to consider it to be worth the risk.
In any given year, doctors diagnose about 66,000 new cases of uterine cancer, and it kills about 13,000 women. There are likely to be several thousand lawsuits brought by women or by the families of women who have died. Some of these cases may relate to incidents that happened years ago but can still potentially have a link to hair relaxers.
The companies will likely negotiate to settle cases out of court, which is typically cheaper than pursuing litigation. It is likely that there will be many settlements related to this claim, and people will continue to move away from using these products, possibly to the point where some companies will stop producing them.
Another possibility is that the FDA may become involved, requiring manufacturers to place warnings on these products or even removing some from the market. As the study did not distinguish between brands and chemical composition, there is a need for more studies to establish whether certain brands or ingredients are more likely to cause a problem than others.
The number of hair relaxer lawsuits on this issue continues to grow, and short of another study that disproves the link, it is likely to reach thousands shortly. This increases the likelihood that these cases will be consolidated into a class action to streamline the court process.
In the meantime, the impact on the hair straightening industry is significant and likely permanent. Many women who used hair straighteners and developed uterine cancer will be considering the potential link to these chemicals and a desire to hold these companies responsible.
If you or a loved one used hair straightening products and was diagnosed with uterine or other potentially related cancer, pursue the compensation you deserve. Contact an experienced product liability attorney to learn more about your legal options and to get the help you need to protect your rights and recover from the harm you’ve suffered.