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Hair Straightener Litigation Raising Cancer Awareness

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Litigation is starting to raise Black women’s awareness of hair straighteners associated with uterine cancer and other serious health issues.

Chicago, ILAs hair straightener litigation is making headlines, black girls and women who frequently use chemical hair straighteners are increasingly becoming aware of hair relaxer risks, including uterine cancer and breast cancer.

News is spreading fast. The Chicago Tribune recently told of two women diagnosed with cancer. They are plaintiffs in a complaint filed in Chicago in May, which consolidates nearly 250 lawsuits from across the country (Master Docket Case No. 1:23-cv-00818 before Judge Mary Rowland). LaTonya Shuler, age 50 of Indianapolis, was diagnosed with uterine cancer. LaPagent Holton, 41, a registered nurse in San Antonio, had endometrial cancer. And OB/GYN oncologists have been saying uterine cancer is a growing problem for years, reported the Tribune.

“Uterine cancer is increasing in this country very starkly, especially among minority women. And death rates from uterine cancer are much higher in Black women than any other category,” said Dr. Nita Lee, at the University of Chicago’s Comprehensive Cancer Center Community Outreach and Engagement team, specializes in diagnosing and treating patients with gynecologic malignancies. Lee told the Tribune that she’s been answering more questions from patients surrounding hair relaxing products and uterine cancer cases since the NIH study was released. “It’s not like, ‘Over the last 20 years hair straightening has increased.’ It’s been going on, obviously. But I think the NIH study came at a time where we’re really attuned to try to figure out what’s happening with Black women and uterine cancer.”

The New York Times in 2022 reported that a national study found “Hair Straighteners May Pose a Small Risk for Uterine Cancer” and that same study has been getting a lot of media mileage, including from the American Cancer Society and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Fortunately, hair straightener sales have declined over the past ten years. Before studies associating hair relaxers with cancer were published, the decline was reportedly mainly due to more natural hair style preferences and alternative styling products or styling appliances.  And recent studies could make the hair relaxer market go the way of the Dodo. (For instance, the 2021 Dove CROWN Research Study showed that 45% of Black and brown girls in all school environments reported hair discrimination, and the 2022 National Institutes of Health 11-year Sister Study found that those who had used hair relaxers at least four times in the previous year were more than twice as likely to develop uterine cancer.) Forbes reported that sales went from about $71 million in 2011 to $30 million in 2021.

But hair relaxer manufacturers still haven’t changed their recipes—unfortunately no one has found a way to relax hair without the straightening chemicals.

Hair Straightener Chemicals

Formaldehyde has been linked to certain cancers and it is just one of the dangerous chemicals used in hair relaxers sold to salons (formaldehyde is excluded from home-relaxer kits). The Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Women’s Voices for the Earth filed a petition in 2021 calling for a federal ban on formaldehyde being used in all hair products in hair salons. “Most of the hair straightening treatments we worry about are marketed for professional use only,” EWG spokesperson Monica Amarelo said.
Jasmine McDonald, assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, says the relaxers contain a mixture of carcinogenic chemicals, including phthalates and parabens that are hormonal endocrine disruptor chemicals (that interrupt your natural hormonal processes). “It could be the introduction of estrogenic compounds. The idea is that there’s a mixture of chemicals and no chemical works in a silo,” she told the Tribune.

The California Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) in 2021 released a report on harmful chemicals found in hair straightening products. And the following year, the NIEHS study also identified a few chemicals found in these products that may lead to increased cancer risk. Harmful chemicals in hair straighteners include:
  • Cyclosiloxanes: Used in the manufacture of silicons, cyclosiloxanes may be carcinogenic to female reproductive organs in animals. But some experts say this may not apply to humans because of biological differences between people and the test animals.
  • Diethanolamine: DEA may be present in about half of all hair relaxer kits. International regulatory agencies list DEA as carcinogenic to animals. They also classify it as possibly carcinogenic to humans. DEA has been associated with certain cancers in mice.
  • Formaldehyde: The Environmental Working Group (EWG) and other consumer watchdog groups have found high levels of formaldehyde in hair straightening products and experts say long-term formaldehyde exposure may increase cancer risks for salon workers.
  • Metals: A variety of metals may be present in chemical hair relaxer products, and a few are considered carcinogenic.
  • Parabens: These endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) may be a risk factor for cancer and other health issues. They have been linked to some forms of cancer in animal and laboratory studies. Some research also indicates endocrine disruptors may promote unhealthy weight gain. The Sister Study noted that paraben levels were higher in individuals with endometrial cancer, than those without.
  • Phthalates: The phthalates diethyl phthalate (DEP) and diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) have been found in hair relaxers. Exposure to high doses of phthalates has been observed to cause reproductive and developmental issues in animals. DEHP has also been linked to cancers and hormone disruption in humans. The Sister Study noted that phthalate levels were higher in individuals with endometrial cancer, than those without.
Plaintiff LaPagent Holton is hoping that litigation will result in changes. “Even if they don’t pull relaxers from the shelves, I would hope that they would at least put a warning label on them. Then everybody can make a decision; everyone has a right to make a decision regarding their health.”


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I have pictures of my hair bald and damaged. Used chemicals since I was 7 years old.


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