In 2022, an NIH study called the Sister Study found that women who used chemical hair straighteners had an increased risk of cancer, specifically uterine cancer. Other studies have linked these hair relaxers to breast cancer, endometriosis and uterine fibroids.

As a result of these findings, thousands of women filed chemical hair straightener lawsuits against the makers of chemical relaxers such as SoftSheen, Dark & Lovely and L’Oréal products. Lawsuits claim consumers were never warned of the risk and that defendants marketed their products to women of color.
As of February 2024, there are more than 8,200 chemical hair straightener lawsuits active in Illinois federal court.

In this Drugwatch Q&A, award-winning attorney Ashleigh Raso of the firm Nigh Goldenberg Raso & Vaughn answers questions about the current status of the federal hair straightener litigation.

Q: What are chemical hair straighteners, and what are they used for?

Eurocentric beauty standards have long discriminated against certain hair types including textured hair. Hair relaxing, or lanthionization, is a process in which the relaxers are applied to the base of the hair shaft and left in place for a “cooking” interval, during which the relaxer alters the hair’s texture by purposefully damaging the hair’s natural protein structure. The effect of this protein damage is that it straightens and smooths the hair.

Q: Why are people filing chemical hair straightener lawsuits?

The plaintiffs in this lawsuit are alleging that the chemicals used in the hair relaxer products cause various injuries including uterine, endometrial and ovarian cancer. The plaintiffs also allege that the defendants in this case lied about the safety of the products and knew or should have known that they were unsafe and caused cancer.

Q: Who are the defendants in chemical hair straightener litigation?

The defendants in this case include L’Oréal USA, SoftSheen Carson, Revlon, Strength of Nature, Godrej, Dabur International, Namaste Laboratories, Dermoviva Skin Essentials, AFAM Concept, Parfums De Coeur, McBride Research Laboratories, Avlon Industries, Beauty Bell Enterprises, Luster Products and Sally Beauty Supply.

These include hair relaxers that go by the name of Affirm, Africa’s Best, African Pride, Creme of Nature, Hawaiian Silky, Just for Me, Luster’s, Mizani, Motions, Optimum, ORS Olive Oil, Soft & Beautiful, Texture My Way, Ultra Sheen, Vitale and others.

Q: What does science say about chemical hair straighteners and cancer?

The harmful toxins in the hair relaxer chemicals include phthalates, parabens, cyclosiloxanes and other chemicals which disrupt a woman’s endocrine system. The endocrine system regulates all biological processes in the body from conception to adulthood, including the reproductive system, metabolism and blood sugar levels. Disruption of the endocrine system can lead to significant adverse health effects including reproductive impairment and cancer.

Q: What are the types of clients you are receiving, and what kinds of injuries are they experiencing?

Clients range in age from young adults to women late in life who have experienced uterine, ovarian and/or endometrial cancers. These women have used relaxers consistently and routinely, sometimes beginning at a very young age. Unfortunately, due to their injuries, many of these clients have had to undergo surgeries such as hysterectomies and have lost the inability to become pregnant, even though many of these women did and still do desire to have children.

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Q: Have chemical hair straightener companies marketed directly to people of color, and how have they done this?

Companies have targeted women of color by using marketing to reinforce texturism — the idea that “good hair” is straight. For example, an early L’Oréal advertisement says, “L’Oréal knows just how beautiful black hair can be” implying that natural black hair is not as beautiful.

This is also true for hair relaxers for children, where companies like Soft & Beautiful marketed hair relaxers to children as “gentle treatments” that were safer than alternative relaxers.

Q: How have your clients been affected by cancer caused by chemical hair straighteners?

Many of our clients have lost loved ones far too soon. Some clients are dealing with cancer and sickness, and they try to navigate life as fully as possible. These women are remarkable, and what they have been through is awful.