Last year, a new study by NIH revealed that regular use of chemical hair relaxer products can significantly increase the risk of uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, and other hormone-related diseases. The publication of this study has been followed by a growing wave of hair relaxer lawsuits by women who have used hair relaxer products for years and were diagnosed with one of these conditions.
This post will examine how the hair relaxer litigation has developed over the last six months. We will also explain the status of the hair relaxer class action as of May 2023 and give our predictions of what to expect from this mass tort moving forward.
Hair Relaxer Linked to Cancer
Millions of women (primarily African Americans) regularly use chemical hair relaxers or straighteners. These cosmetic products use a potent mix of chemicals to destabilize the protein structure of curly hair and force it to lay flat.
Hair relaxers include chemicals called phthalates (often called “plasticizers”), known to disrupt the endocrine system. The endocrine system is responsible for producing hormones such as estrogen in women.
Over the last decade, a research team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has conducted a major long-term study called the “Sister Study.” The primary purpose of the sister study was to identify risk factors for breast cancer by examining data from over 50,000 sister pairs. In addition to breast cancer, however, data from the Sister Study has shed light on potential causes of many other types of cancers.
In October 2022, the NIH research team from the Sister Study published an article in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute based on data from the Sister Study. The article reported that the Sister Study data showed a causal link between the regular use of chemical hair relaxers and increased rates of uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, and other hormone-driven female health conditions.
The article from the Sister Study team reported that women participating in the study who reported “frequent” use of hair relaxers (more than four times per year) displayed a 150% increase in the rate of uterine cancer compared to the control group. The rate of ovarian cancer was similarly elevated among women who regularly used hair relaxers. The research team concluded that this was evidence suggesting that chronic exposure to chemicals in hair relaxers caused uterine and ovarian cancer.
- Projected hair relaxer lawsuit settlement amounts.
EDCs in Hair Relaxers
So why does using a hair relaxer increase the risk of developing uterine and ovarian cancer? Scientists believe the link between hair relaxers and these hormone-sensitive cancers is that hair relaxer products contain chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system, interfering with hormone production.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are chemical substances that interfere with the regular activity of the endocrine system, which regulates almost every cell, organ, and process within the body. Hormones, such as estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, and androgen, are chemical signals that control or regulate critical biological processes. When a hormone binds to a target cell’s receptor, the receptor carries out the hormone’s instructions, switching on or off specific biological processes in cells, tissues, and organs.
The precise functioning of the endocrine system is vital to maintain hormonal homeostasis, the body’s natural hormonal production, and degradation. A slight variation in hormone levels can lead to significant adverse health effects, including reproductive impairment and infertility, cancer, cognitive deficits, immune disorders, and metabolic syndrome. EDCs can act directly on hormone receptors as mimics or antagonists or on proteins that control hormone delivery. They disrupt the endocrine system and interfere with the body’s hormonal homeostasis in various ways.
EDCs can cause the body to operate as if there were a proliferation of a hormone and thus over-respond to the stimulus or respond when it was not supposed by mimicking a natural hormone. EDCs can increase or decrease the levels of the body’s hormones by affecting the production, degradation, and storage of hormones. EDCs can also block the hormone’s stimulus by inducing epigenetic changes, modifications to DNA that regulate whether genes are turned on or off, or altering the structure of target cells’ receptors.
EDCs cause numerous adverse human health outcomes, including endometriosis, poor sperm quality, abnormalities in reproductive organs, various cancers, altered nervous system and immune function, respiratory problems, metabolic issues, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular problems, growth, and neurological and learning disabilities. EDCs that mimic the effects of estrogen in the body may contribute to disease risk because exposure to estrogen, endogenously and exogenously, is associated with endometrial (uterine) cancer, and a woman’s lifetime risk of developing the disease increases with greater duration and cumulative exposure.
Natural and synthetic EDCs are present in hair products under the guise of “fragrance” and “perfumes” and thus enter the body when these products are exogenously applied to the hair and scalp. Studies exploring this issue have thus far classified EDCs as estrogens, phthalates, and parabens. Indeed, numerous studies spanning more than two decades have demonstrated the adverse impact EDCs, including Di-2-ethyl hexyl phthalate, have on the male and female reproductive systems, such as inducing endometriosis, abnormal reproductive tract formation, decreased sperm counts and viability, pregnancy loss, and abnormal puberty onset.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are chemical substances that interfere with the normal activity of the endocrine system, which regulates almost every cell, organ, and process within the body. Hormones, such as estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, and androgen, are chemical signals that control or regulate critical biological processes. When a hormone binds to a target cell’s receptor, the receptor carries out the hormone’s instructions, switching on or off specific biological processes in cells, tissues, and organs.
Di-2-ethyl hexyl phthalate (DEHP) is a synthetic chemical that belongs to the phthalate family and is highly toxic. It was first used in the United States in 1949 and has been the most widely used phthalate derivative in the 20th century. DEHP does not bind covalently to its parent material, which makes it prone to leaching into the environment, increasing human exposure through ingestion, inhalation, and dermal contact, including intrauterine life.
Humans are exposed to DEHP through various means, and it breaks down into metabolites upon entering the body, which are responsible for its toxicity. These metabolites have been linked to adverse health effects, such as endometriosis, reproductive dysfunction, developmental abnormalities, various cancers, and metabolic syndrome in humans and their future offspring.
The global consumption of DEHP is estimated to be 3.07 million tons, with an estimated global market of phthalates in 2020 expected to reach 10 billion USD. Human epidemiological studies have shown a significant association between phthalate exposure and adverse reproductive outcomes in both men and women and impacts on children’s health.
Since the early 2000s, many Asian and Western countries have proposed restrictions on phthalates, and the U.S. Congress announced the Consumer Protection Safety Act in 2008, which permanently banned products containing DEHP, DBP, and BBP at levels >0.1% by weight, especially children’s toys and childcare articles.
Hair Relaxer Class Action Lawsuit
Within weeks after the publication of the Sister Study article regarding the connection between hair relaxers and cancer, women across the country began filing product liability lawsuits against cosmetic companies that make relaxer products. The primary cosmetic companies named as defendants in these cases have been L’Oreal, Dabur Ltd., and Godrej Ltd.
Around a dozen hair relaxer product liability lawsuits were filed in the last three months of 2022, but it was clear that the size of the potential plaintiff field was considerable. This prompted a group of early hair relaxer plaintiffs to file a motion asking the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) to consolidate all hair relaxer cases in federal courts into a new class action MDL.
The pace of new hair relaxer lawsuits filed in federal courts increased significantly at the start of 2023. On January, 23 new hair relaxer lawsuits were filed in 11 different federal districts across the U.S. 3 more hair relaxer cancer lawsuits were filed in the first week of February in 3 new U.S. District Courts.
New Hair Relaxer Class Action Certified
In February 2023, the hair relaxer lawsuits were consolidated into a new class action MDL in the Northern District of Illinois and assigned to Judge Mary M. Rowland. The Northern District of Illinois is where the hair relaxer cases originated last year, and it had more pending hair relaxer cases than any other jurisdiction. Fifty-three hair relaxer cases were pending in 19 different federal districts, and nearly 20 were in the Northern District of Illinois.
The JPML created the new MDL over the objections of L’Oreal and the other primary defendants because:
Centralization will allow this litigation to be managed most efficiently and will best serve the convenience of the parties, witnesses, and courts. Since the filing of the motion, this litigation has grown from nine pending actions in four districts to 53 involved actions in nineteen districts. Most of the actions name multiple sets of defendants, and nearly all name the L’Oréal defendants. In addition, most plaintiffs allege exposure to multiple different product lines. According to movants, this is because women who use hair relaxers typically use different product lines throughout their lives; hence, any future related actions are likely to involve multiple defendants and product lines as well.
MDL Order at 2.
What Does the Hair Relaxer Class Action Mean for Future Cases?
Creating the new class action MDL means all hair relaxer lawsuits in the federal courts (pending cases and future cases) will be consolidated together in a single proceeding before Judge Rowland. It will now be up to Judge Rowland to oversee a process of consolidated discovery in which the plaintiffs jointly obtain discovery from the various defendants. As this process continues over the next 1-2 years, newly filed hair relaxer lawsuits will be transferred into the MDL as they get filed.
Once the consolidated discovery phase is completed, Judge Rowland will need to establish a process for selecting a handful of hair relaxer cases in the MDL to serve as test cases. The court will then hold jury trials in these test cases to give everyone an idea of what they could expect if all of the cases went to trial. These are known as “bellwether trials.”
For pending cases, this means that your case will be automatically transferred into the MDL, which will be assigned to a federal judge from a district selected by the JPML. Future hair relaxer lawsuits will be filed directly in the MDL using an expedited process or transferred in from the district they initially filed in.
What’s Next for the Hair Relaxer Litigation in 2023?
The emerging hair relaxer litigation will probably be one of the hottest mass torts in 2023 in terms of the number of new cases filed. Right now, only about 30 hair relaxer lawsuits are pending in the federal courts, but that is after only a few months. Now that the JPML has created a new class action M.D., we will see a new wave of high-volume filings.
The size of the potential plaintiff field in the hair relaxer mass tort is potentially enormous. It has been estimated that over 80% of Black women in the U.S. use hair relaxers regularly. That means every Black woman in the U.S. diagnosed with uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, or other related conditions is a potential plaintiff.
Over 600,000 uterine cancer survivors are in the U.S. today, and 50,000 more are diagnosed each year. The numbers for cervical cancer are similar. Even if we assume that only 15% of these women used hair relaxers regularly (which is probably an underestimate), that still would yield a massive potential plaintiff field.
Hiring a Lawyer for Your Hair Relaxer Lawsuit
Our lawyers are currently seeking product liability cases alleging that chemicals in hair relaxer products caused a uterine-related injury. If you were diagnosed with a reproductive injury after regularly using chemical hair straighteners, call our attorneys today at 800-553-8082 or get a no-obligation online case evaluation.