Hair Straighteners and Hair Relaxers are now being associated with different types of cancers. Lawsuits are now being filed.

With the emergence of Jenny Mitchell v. L'Oreal USA Inc., women from across the country are starting to take a second look at their commonly used hair relaxer and hair straightener products.

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Women and Hair Products

For many women, hair is used to express creativity and inspire internal confidence. It can also be used to enhance one’s beauty. On average, women spend roughly 55 minutes every day on their hair according to Women’s Health magazine. Hair products play an important role in hair care and hair styling. This is especially true for women of color. Although natural hair trends have been all the rise, hair relaxers and hair straightening products are still a large portion of the global hair products market, which is expected to reach $967 million by 2023. Popular brands that target Black women like SoftSheen Carson, Oliver Oil RelaxerDark & Lovely, and Just for Me can be found in stores across America. Due to the presence of harsh chemicals, however, most tend to have a professional stylist or beautician apply the relaxers or hair straightening products. If relaxers are common products found in many households, why now are we seeing elevated occurrences of different cancers among its many users? Hopefully this blog can help answer some common questions or concerns.

What is a Hair Relaxer or Hair Straightening Product?

using hair relaxer

A hair relaxer is a chemical treatment usually in the form of a cream that permanently loosens the curl pattern of the hair, which is also known as “relaxing” the hair. Hair relaxers straighten hair by penetrating the cuticle and the cortex layers of the hair shaft where the keratin proteins are found. The keratin proteins are then broken down by the acidic solution causing a “straightening” effect. Relaxers can be traced back to the early 1900s with the first products being produced by Madame C.J Walker. They eventually became a staple in many salons and households in the ’90s to make hair easier to manage and to help assimilate in professional work environments. However, this idea of assimilation has become less relevant as time has progressed.

“Having a relaxer helped to lessen the time spent on getting my hair ready for the school week," Dana Oliver, the founder of Beauty for Breakfast and a former Yahoo beauty director, tells Yahoo Life. "[You also] look more polished, you look more sophisticated."

Yahoo News

Besides leaving a chemical aroma, this process leaves the hair weak, brittle, and more susceptible to damage and breakage. It can even burn the skin, cause permanent damage to the scalp, and increase the risk for alopecia (hair loss) due to the weakening of the hair strand.

Lawsuits and Studies Involving Hair Relaxers

Besides the damage hair sustains from the acidic cream, some hair dye and hair relaxers contain chemicals like Phthalates that can interfere with a person’s hormones due to their interaction with receptors or their signaling pathways. These disruptors or endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) have been linked to several cancers, such as thyroid, breast, and prostate cancer. Other chemicals that can be found in such hair products are formaldehyde, certain metals, and parabens.

In a lawsuit filed against L’Oreal USA,  a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute was cited to show that those who use chemical hair straightening or relaxing products have a higher risk of uterine cancer.

“The study found that an estimated 1.64% of women who never used chemical hair straighteners or relaxers would go on to develop uterine cancer by the age of 70; but for frequent users, that risk more than doubles, increasing to 4.05%,” the suit says. “These risks are more substantial among Black women, who make up the overwhelming majority of hair straightening and hair relaxing product [users],” according to the lawsuit.

hair products

This study echoes the sentiments of another study that was conducted by Wiley in December of 2019 that looked at the relationship between hair dyes and hair relaxer use with the risk of cancer. Their US-base study found that the association was, “particularly evident in black women, for whom we observed a 45% higher breast cancer risk. Overall, these results support the hypothesis that hair dye and straightener use, which are highly prevalent exposures, could play a role in breast carcinogenesis,” said the report. “The higher breast cancer risk observed in women who used straighteners is consistent with recent findings from both the Ghana Breast Health Study and Women’s Circle of Health Study (WCHS).”

Anyone who uses hair relaxers or hair straightening products on a consistent basis (1 or 2 times a month) and for a prolonged period of time could be at risk.

Chemicals Found in Some Hair Relaxers

Here is a list of potentially harmful chemicals found in common hair relaxers and hair straightening products:

  1. Formaldehyde
    1. Commonly used as a preservative in some household products and cosmetics. Even when it’s not a listed ingredient, some products contain substances that release formaldehyde as a byproduct or gas. These types of substances have been found in cosmetics, soaps, shampoos, lotions and sunscreens.
  2. Phthalates
    1. Commonly used to make plastics more durable or to help dissolve other materials.
  3. Parabens
    1. Commonly used as preservatives in cosmetics. The main parabens used in these types of products are methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben.
  4. Methylene Glycol
    1. Typically formed when formaldehyde reacts to water. Under some circumstances, methylene glycol can release formaldehyde, as these molecules are reversible and can transform back and forth from each other.
  5. Alkaline Agents
    1. Such as Potassium Hydroxide or Lithium Hydroxide, these chemicals are also known as lye. They are inorganic compounds that are potent bases used in various paints, varnish removers and liquid drain cleaners.

According to the National Cancer Institute, short-term exposure to formaldehyde could lead to watery or burning sensations in the eyes; burning sensations in the nose, and throat; coughing; wheezing; nausea; and skin irritation. Long term exposure, however, could potentially lead to various forms of cancer.

In addition to hair relaxers and hair straighteners, some hair smoothing products contain or release formaldehyde. According to the European Commission Scientific Committee, straightening irons and blow dyers when used with certain products can also release formaldehyde vapors.

Other Types of Hair Products in Question

In addition to hair relaxer and hair straightening products, some hair smoothing products contain or release formaldehyde.

Think You've Been Exposed?

hair products and hair relaxer

At Fleming, Nolen & Jez, our personal injury and mass tort lawyers have dedicated their careers to fighting for the rights of injured victims throughout the United States. If you believe you have sustained an injury like uterine cancer or breast cancer due to frequent and prolonged use of a hair relaxer product, let our attorneys review your case. We know that dealing with a traumatic injury is difficult to navigate through. Our team at Fleming | Nolen | Jez has what it takes to fight diligently, confidently, and successfully on your behalf.

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