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Update: Hair Relaxer Litigation Science and Case Criteria

Levin Papantonio Rafferty (LPR) Attorney Chelsie Green and Attorney LaRuby May of May Jung (and LPR Of Counsel), participated in a panel discussion of hair relaxer litigation science and criteria at HarrisMartin’s MDL Conference: Hair Straightener & Social Media Litigation on Wednesday.

The panelists talked about the low number of studies but solid science supporting hair relaxer lawsuits, which allege that exposure to the chemicals in these products caused people to develop uterine or ovarian cancer.

The group also presented the problematic ingredients in chemical hair relaxers: phthalates, which include endocrine disruptors that promote estrogenic activity in the body, and genotoxins, which mutate cell DNA in the body.

Other countries are recognizing the dangers of these chemicals and have already begun banning them in certain products.

The panelists discussed the fact that not only are the known chemicals harmful, but also a number of unknown chemicals are hiding in these products’ ingredients, such as dyes and fragrances.

This is one way these types of products differ from pharmaceutical products: the theory that certain aspects of a cosmetic product’s composition constitute “trade secrets” and can be hidden.

“This is not a medical device, nor is it a drug,” Green said. “It’s not a necessary product… it is just a regular consumer product that that directly targets Black and Brown communities.”

May stressed the importance of understanding that although hair relaxer injuries have been presented as a “woman issue,” it is an “African-American woman or woman of color issue.”

She also elaborated on a critical aspect of usage, which is strongly intertwined with these cases. According to May, many African-American women and women of color who use hair relaxer products began using them as children, while the brain is still developing.

“Imagine the impact that [this product is] having on an 8, 9, or 10-year-old who it’s also being marketed to, and it really becomes an important part of the conversation,” May said.

“I think it’s important for those of you in room who never had a hair relaxer or never had a child who had a hair relaxer to understand that as we’re looking at the science of what this does to the body, this is not something that’s happening to adults only, but also to young Black and Brown women,” May added.

The panelists agreed that most hair relaxer users would be frequent users. “When we talk about usage [criteria being] four times a year...it’s almost like a no-brainer,” May said.

Inextricably linked to the tragic outcomes of hair relaxer usage is the persistent societal pressure to adhere to European beauty standards in order to keep women and girls using these products.

The panel urged the audience of attendees to really listen to their clients and know their stories.

May offered her personal experience.

“I had the privilege and responsibility of being educated in all-white schools my entire life,” May began. “Many of you might not understand the reality of being able to go swimming with friends, and seeing your friends go swimming they come out of water, and their hair is straight, and your hair is not.

“And so what do you do as a child?” May continued. “You’re in a salon, you have chemicals put in your hair…literally burning, just so you could have a reality similar to other kids.

“And that becomes something that becomes very significant.”

Green added: “Understand that there’s going to be generational use of hair relaxers. There’s going to be grandmother use, great-grandmother use.

“Be understanding but also be empathetic,” she said.

The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation began weighing whether to consolidate hair relaxer lawsuits at a hearing in Miami on Thursday. (In re Hair Relaxer Marketing, Sales Practices, and Products Liability Litigation, Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, MDL No. 3060).

Green walked the audience of attorneys through the criteria associated with the hair relaxer litigation.

“We are looking at four or more uses of hair relaxers in a 12-month period,” Green said. She explained the basis for this criteria--a recent and pivotal study (“Use of Straighteners and Other Hair Products and Incident Uterine Cancer”) released in October 2022, which determined that frequent users of chemical hair relaxers who had four or more uses in a 12-month period suffered double the risk of developing uterine cancer.

The study is the first of its size to involve women of African-American descent in the United States. To date, two studies have been published related to hair relaxers’ uterine and ovarian effects. However, an entire body of work exists on the harmful impact on human life from the chemicals that make up these products.

Decades of research has been done on the effects of these chemicals, and the October study was the last piece of the puzzle needed to complete the big picture of the harmful outcome from hair relaxer use.

LPR is representing individuals who developed uterine or ovarian cancer after using chemical hair straighteners and relaxer products.

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