Why Chemical Hair Relaxers Might Be Banned—and Should Have Been Decades Ago

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) might ban some hair-straightening chemicals present in both salon-grade and at-home hair relaxer products. The proposed rule, announced in early October, would prohibit the use of formaldehyde, as well as methylene, glycol, and other formaldehyde-releasing chemicals, in the making of hair smoothing or straightening products marketed in the U.S. The proposed ban stems from these chemicals having been linked to adverse health effects, including certain cancers.

According to U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, the agency’s action marks a “win for public health—especially the health of Black women.” Pressley joined U.S. Rep. Shontel Brown of Ohio in requesting the FDA investigate straightener products.

In their petition to the FDA, the lawmakers wrote:

“As a result of anti-Black hair sentiment, Black women have been unfairly subjected to scrutiny and forced to navigate the extreme politicization of hair. Hence, generations of Black women have adapted by straightening hair in an attempt to achieve social and economic advancement.

“Manufacturers of chemical straighteners have gained enormous profits, but recent findings unveil potentially significant negative health consequences associated with these products,” the letter stated.

Understanding the FDA Rule Process

According to FDA Rules and Regulations, the next step in this type of agency action is to accept public comments, typically via the Federal Government’s electronic docket site (Regulations.gov). The comments will help the FDA determine whether to terminate the rulemaking process, issue a new proposed rule, or issue a final rule.

Other areas of the federal government may review the rule before it gets published in the Federal Register.

“This move by the FDA further shows why our litigation and the mass tort practice is so important,” said Levin Papantonio Rafferty (LPR) Attorney Chelsie Green, who was appointed to the Leadership Development Committee in the multidistrict litigation (MDL 3060) In Re: Hair Relaxer Marketing, Sales Practices, and Products Liability Litigation.

“Good lawyering brings about real change in our society and that is exactly what we are doing in the hair relaxer multi-district litigation,” Green added.

“This isn’t just about hair, we are advocating for Black and Brown women’s health, and now we can say our voices are being heard. Banning these products is one step in right direction and we will continue our work fighting for what is right.”

Use and Exposure That Spans a Lifetime

Green explained that typically a hair relaxer is applied once every four to six weeks. “Some consumers or women will use that product a lot more, depending on how quickly their hair grows,” she told Farron Cousins during an October 2023 interview on America’s Lawyer. “So, if your hair grows faster than the average, then you could be using this product every two weeks.

Exposure for any given user would amount to decades.

Compounding the horror of this story, it should be noted that hair relaxer use dates back to times of slavery. “Black women weren’t seen as beautiful, or their hair wasn’t seen as professional. So, this has been lineage, generations of use. And it’s typically starting at about age five into adulthood,” Green said.

The Study That Started a Conversation

U.S. Reps. Pressley and Brown penned their letter to the FDA in March 2023 in response to a 2022 study published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) linking relaxers to a heightened risk of uterine cancer.

The NIH study was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. It included data from 33,497 women aged 35-74 in the United States and revealed that women who used chemical hair straightening products were at a higher risk for uterine cancer compared to women who did not use these products.

According to the researchers, among women who did not use hair-straightening chemical products in the past 12 months, 1.6% developed uterine cancer by age 70, but about 4% of the women who frequently use such hair-straightening products developed uterine cancer by age 70.

Hair products containing certain types of chemicals are advertised to Black women at a rate of about 50%, compared to only 7% for White women, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The Lawsuits That Followed

The manner in which chemical hair relaxers work, combined with the historical, perpetuated bias toward a European standard of beauty, means that use of these products typically starts in youth and last a lifetime. “There’s going to be generational use of hair relaxers. There’s going to be grandmother use, great-grandmother use,” said Green, who is handling hair relaxer cases for LPR.

On February 6, 2023, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation entered a Transfer Order, creating MDL 3060: In Re: Hair Relaxer Marketing, Sales Practices, and Products Liability Litigation. The order transfers cases pending in district courts to the Northern District of Illinois to be heard before the Honorable Mary M. Rowland.

LPR has filed multiple cases on behalf of women who used chemical hair straighteners, starting with the following three women.

Terrice Aikens

On January 23, 2023, Case 2:23-cv-00095 was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington on behalf of Terrice Aikens.

Aikens, a 48-year-old resident of the State of Washington, received her uterine cancer diagnosis on July 15, 2021. The plaintiff alleges her diagnosis resulted from her regular and prolonged exposure to phthalates and other endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) contained in the defendants’ hair relaxer products, including Dark & Lovely, Just For Me, Motions, Affirm, Crème of Nature, Optimum, and Olive Oil ORS.

Dorothy J. May

On January 31, 2023, another lawsuit (Case 3:23-cv-00056-BAJ-EWD) was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle district of Louisiana on behalf of Louisiana resident Dorothy May. The 63-year-old plaintiff was diagnosed with uterine cancer on or around February 15, 2022, after regular use of the Defendants’ products.

Hermania Bates

Hermania Bates received her uterine cancer diagnosis on February 22, 2023. Her lawsuit, like May’s and Aikens’ complaints, allege that the Defendants’ hair care products caused the illness. Attorneys filed Bates’ complaint (Case 3:23-cv-00057-DJH) in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky.

A Staggering Growth in Filed Complaints

The number of filed hair relaxer lawsuits continues to grow at an alarming rate. According to Green, a Revlon, one of the defendants in the hair relaxer litigation, is coming out of bankruptcy, and this event has impacted the numbers Green had been seeing.

“They had a deadline for us to file all complaints against Revlon by September 14th,” Green told Cousins. “As of September 14th, over 7,000 cases are filed in the Northern District of Illinois,” she added.

Defendants in the multidistrict litigation include L’Oreal, makers of Dark and Lovely brands, as well as Motions, another hair relaxer, and Revlon products.

“There’s going to be some smaller, salon-based hair relaxers also, where they’re not typically sold over the shelf,” Green told Cousins.

Facts About Hair Relaxers

According to the Complaints filed by LPR:

  1. The 2020 global Black Hair care market was estimated at $2.5 billion. The hair relaxer market alone was estimated at $718 million in 2021, with the expectation to grow to $854 million annually by 2028.
  2. Of 1,177 personal care products marketed to Black women, hair relaxers, hair colors, and bleaching products were the worst-scoring products in terms of analyzed ingredients. The average product score for these types of products indicated “high potential hazard.”
  3. The success of the hair relaxer products industry ties to a centuries-old issue of texturism: “The idea that ‘good hair’ is equated with a straighter hair texture was cemented into American culture during its period of chattel slavery.”
  4. Centuries later, Defendants market their hair relaxer products to Black customers across the across the globe, reinforcing the same Eurocentric standards of beauty. “Defendant’s marketing scheme relies heavily on branding and slogans that reinforce straight hair as the standard.”
  5. Some studies show that up to 90% of Black and Brown women have used hair relaxants and straighteners.
  6. The first relaxer product marketed to young Black girls, Just for Me ™, entered the marketplace in the 1990s.
  7. Once relaxer use begins in childhood, it typically becomes a lifetime habit. “The frequency of scalp burns with relaxer application can increase the risk of permanent and debilitating diseases associated with long-term exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals.”
  8. Uterine cancer is associated with phthalate metabolites found in hair care products.