Unstraightening the Truth About Chemical Hair Relaxers, Litigation, and Safety

chemical hair relaxer dangers

Straight Hair, Uncertain Safety: Legal Battles Grow Over Chemical Relaxers

For decades, chemical hair relaxers like Dark & Lovely, Just for Me, Optimum, ORS Olive Oil, and countless others have been staples in Black hair care routines. Promising sleek, manageable strands, these products have been a go-to for achieving a straighter hair style. However, a recent study and a surge in lawsuits are forcing a reevaluation of these relaxers, raising serious questions about their safety.

A study raises alarm

In October 2022, a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute sent shockwaves through the beauty industry. The research, which followed over 33,000 women, linked regular use of hair straightening products to a nearly doubled risk of uterine cancer compared to non-users. This discovery ignited a firestorm of concern, particularly within the Black community where relaxer use is prevalent.

A spectrum of health concerns

The lawsuits against hair relaxer manufacturers like L'Oreal and Strength of Nature go beyond uterine cancer. Plaintiffs allege a wider net of health problems potentially caused by relaxer use, including:

  • Ovarian Cancer: Similar to uterine cancer, the lawsuits allege relaxers may increase the risk of ovarian cancer.

  • Uterine Fibroids: These non-cancerous growths in the uterus can cause heavy bleeding, pain, and other complications. The lawsuits claim relaxers may contribute to fibroid development.

  • Breast Cancer: Some lawsuits allege a connection between relaxer use and breast cancer, though the science on this link is currently less clear.

The lawsuits hinge on a central allegation: that manufacturers failed to adequately warn consumers about these potential health risks. Plaintiffs argue that companies prioritized profits over safety by not disclosing the potential consequences of using their relaxers.

Kiara’s story: A fight for answers

Kiara Burroughs, a resident of Atlanta, is one of the many women who have filed suit against hair relaxer manufacturers. Burroughs began using relaxers at the age of 6 and continued for nearly two decades, receiving regular touch-ups to maintain straight hair.  

In 2018, at the age of 29, her world was turned upside down when she was diagnosed with uterine fibroids, experiencing heavy bleeding and pain during her periods. Burroughs underwent multiple myomectomies, a surgical procedure to remove fibroids, but still lives with a remaining fibroid too risky to remove.

The lack of clear answers about the cause of her fibroids, coupled with a healthy diet and active lifestyle, left Burroughs searching for explanations. It wasn't until the 2022 study linking relaxer use to uterine cancer that a light bulb went off.  

"There's this product, I used it for an extended period of time, so it could have a significant impact on my health," Burroughs told GPB News earlier this year.

Burroughs' story, and the stories of countless other women like her, are at the heart of the lawsuits. They are seeking accountability from manufacturers and hoping to raise awareness about the potential dangers of relaxers.

Streamlining the legal process

As the number of lawsuits against hair relaxer manufacturers grew, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) stepped in to streamline the legal process. In January 2023, they established a Multidistrict Litigation (MDL), consolidating all federal hair relaxer lawsuits before U.S. District Judge Mary Rowland in the Northern District of Illinois. This MDL avoids duplicative efforts across numerous courts by allowing for coordinated pretrial proceedings and discovery.

A crucial aspect of the MDL will be the selection of bellwether trials. These representative cases will be the first to go to trial, serving as indicator for how juries might respond to evidence and arguments. Scheduled for November 2025, the outcomes of these bellwether trials are likely to have a significant impact on settlement negotiations and potentially set a precedent for the thousands of remaining cases.

Seeking accountability and safer solutions

Kiara's story, echoed by countless others, lays bare the need for answers. The lawsuits demand more research on relaxer's long-term health effects. Science might not have all the answers, but these legal battles push the issue forward and fuels the demand for safer options in the hair care industry. 



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