A Missouri woman is suing L’Oréal USA and a handful of other companies that developed hair straighteners that allegedly led to her uterine cancer diagnosis.
Jenny Mitchell told Atlanta Black Star she was stripped of her ability to have children after undergoing a hysterectomy at 28 years old. Mitchell was in the process of seeking fertility treatment when doctors found cancer in her uterus. She had been using hair relaxers for 18 years at the time.
Mitchell’s attorneys, Ben Crump and Diandra “Fu” Debrosse Zimmermann, said the effects of the hair relaxers are a public health crisis. They filed the mass tort lawsuit on Oct. 21 “to raise the alarm” about the issue.
“I see it as a public health crisis because these are our Black daughters, our Black young women, our Black women being affected by this,” Crump told Atlanta Black Star.
“And if it were anybody else’s daughters who are being affected almost 2 to 1 with getting uterine cancer because of these awful chemicals that they’re using in their products, everybody would agree, but for whatever reason, it seems to be when it’s Black women, we say, ‘Oh, it’s not that significant,’ ” Crump continued.
According to a recent Journal of National Cancer Institute study, hair relaxing products contain “hazardous chemicals with endocrine-disrupting and carcinogenic properties” that lead to a higher risk of uterine cancer.
The federal lawsuit, filed on behalf of Mitchell and the other 90 percent of Black women in America who use relaxers, claims L’Oreal and the other companies, including Carson Inc. and Strength of Nature Global LLC, failed to put warnings on the products about the cancer risk.
“I’m just one of the millions of voices that are going to stand up, and if we all come together and hold these companies accountable, there will be change,” Mitchell told Atlanta Black Star.
Prolonged use of hair relaxers among Black women has been linked to systemic racism in America dating back to chattel slavery, colorism and modern-day hair discrimination, the lawsuit alleges. Hair relaxer creams were first marketed as the remedy for “good hair,” a way to make coiled hair more appealing and confirmative to “Eurocentric beauty standards.”
The lawsuit alleges the companies producing relaxers relied “on branding and slogans that reinforce straight hair as the standard.”
Dove’s 2021 Crown Study For Girls found that 100 percent of Black elementary school girls in majority-white schools experience hair discrimination by 10, the same age Mitchell said she started using hair relaxer to straighten her hair.
“That’s something that was a societal norm to fit in to look a certain way,” Mitchell said.
Still, 53 percent of Black mothers whose daughters have experienced hair discrimination said it started when they were as young as five years old. In addition, Black teenagers reported experiencing hair discrimination as young as 12.
Data shows hair discrimination is not limited to behind school doors. Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair, the Dove study shows. About 89 percent of Black women were more likely than white women to agree with the statement, “I have to change my hair from its natural state to fit in at the office.”
Once chemical relaxers are applied to Black hair in its natural state, it must be routinely applied every four to eight weeks to smooth out new hair growing from the roots. Mitchell kept up this routine from 2000 to August 2018, when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She has no family history of cancer or uterine cancer, the lawsuit says.
Six weeks after her diagnosis, Mitchell underwent a full hysterectomy.
“I was devastated because having a family, having a child of my own, has always been a dream of mine since I was a little girl,” Mitchell said.
The lawsuit says that Mitchell had to see a specialist every three months from September 2018 until 2020. Mitchell is now in remission and has biannual visits with a specialist. Still, she has not only lost the opportunity to carry a child but also currently lives with an amplified version of menopause bought on by having her uterus removed in her 20s.
The military veteran, who lived an active life before uterine cancer, now faces hot flashes, irregular weight gain, dry skin, low-bone density, and is more prone to cardiovascular diseases, among other things.
“You have a lack of energy. You deal with insomnia, too, with all of this. So it affects you on an extreme basis because you are having hormonal changes so fast and abruptly and not naturally,” Mitchell said.
Hair relaxers contain hormonally active and carcinogenic compounds, such as phthalates, which can cause endocrine disruption. The chemical compounds were first developed to make plastics more durable. They are also used as solvents and stabilizers in perfumes or other fragrances, the lawsuit says, and can be found in nail polish, hair sprays, aftershave, cleansers and shampoos.
Hair product companies use phthalates to make fragrances last longer and penetrate hair better. However, manufacturers are not required by law to list phthalates separately, and they are often listed under “fragrance” or “perfume” categories, the lawsuit says.
Crump said the companies’ dangerous marketing scheme has most likely impacted about 17 million other Black women and girls, calling it a public health crisis. The lawsuit points to several other conditions that could result from the chemicals in hair relaxers, including breast cancer, endometriosis and uterine fibroids, which are more prevalent among Black women.
The lawsuit also names Soft Sheen Carson W.I. Inc., Namaste Laboratories LLC, Dabur International Ltd and Dabur USA Inc.
Debrosse Zimmermann said the companies should be held accountable for putting “profit over people.”
“You can’t just decide that people’s lives are irrelevant and when you have knowledge of dangers, you choose not to reveal it because you want to sell your product,” Debrosse Zimmermann told Atlanta Black Star.
“It’s a watershed moment for Black and brown women,” she added.
“We’ve come to a realization about what we believe has caused significant health issues across our community, and we’re going to hold you accountable for it, and we hope that the companies take responsibility for where we are.”