Penningtons Manches Cooper is currently investigating claims by a number of British women for uterine and ovarian cancer caused by hair relaxer products. This comes in the wake of the filing of hundreds of claims in the US following a study carried out by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which found that frequent use of chemical hair-straightening products may double the risk of uterine and ovarian cancer.
There are now more than 100 claims filed in the US, where lawyers anticipate that thousands of additional cases will be brought in the coming months, given the widespread use of hair relaxers and perms, which were specifically targeted to women in the Black community.
According to the 2022 study, women who used hair straightening products more than four times a year were twice as likely to develop uterine or ovarian cancer when compared with women who did not use the products. The worrying results from the study saw scientists look at 33,947 racially diverse women, aged 35 to 74, across the US for more than a decade. During that time, 378 women developed uterine cancer. They found that the rate of uterine cancer was 4.05% in women who used straightening products four or more times a year, compared to 1.64% in those who did not.
The problem lies with the endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) used in chemical hair relaxer products. EDCs are substances that throw off the body’s natural hormonal production and degradation. This disruption can cause a wide variety of health problems, including cancer. Phthalates, a type of EDC which have been linked to uterine cancer, are used in several haircare manufacturers’ hair straightening and relaxing products.
The US hair relaxer lawsuits allege that cosmetic companies knew their products were harmful from 2015, but they failed to warn consumers of the health risks from regular and prolonged use. Within weeks after the publication of the NIH study connecting hair relaxers and cancer, women across the US began filing product liability lawsuits against cosmetic companies like 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 for all claims to be consolidated. The pace of new hair relaxer lawsuits filed in US courts increased significantly at the start of 2023, and in February 2023 the hair relaxer lawsuits were consolidated into a new class action.
A process of consolidated discovery is now taking place, in which the plaintiffs jointly obtain discovery from the various defendants. As this process continues over the next one to two years, newly filed hair relaxer lawsuits will be transferred into the group action as they get filed. Once the consolidated discovery phase is completed, there will be a process for selecting a handful of hair relaxer cases 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.
Campaigners here in the UK are calling on the cosmetics company L’Oréal (one of the biggest manufacturers of lye-based hair relaxers) and other manufacturers to withdraw their hair-straightening products. The campaign is quoting the scientific research from NIH, claiming a correlation between the use of chemical hair straighteners containing lye and a higher risk of uterine cancer. The evidence is sufficient for campaigners like the UK feminist group Level Up to want to take action, and more than 5,000 petition signers have asked brands to remove chemicals linked to cancer from these products. In an open letter, coordinated by Level Up, campaigners also asked L'Oréal to invest in research on the long-term use of chemical relaxers. The letter has been signed by 10 MPs.
Elise Bevan is a solicitor and partner at Penningtons Manches Cooper, who specialises in women’s health litigation and is a member of the American Association for Justice (AAJ). She comments:
“I first learnt of the hair relaxer claims at the AAJ conference in Phoenix earlier this year. Being a solicitor who specialises in claims involving cancer and women’s health, the hair relaxer claims sparked a great deal of interest for me. Since then, the hair relaxer litigation has really taken off in the US and is set to be one of the highest profile mass torts in 2023.
“The number of women potentially affected is enormous. It has been estimated that over 80% of Black women in the UK use hair relaxers regularly. That means every Black woman diagnosed with uterine or ovarian cancer is a potential claimant. Of course, it’s important to note that not all women who use hair relaxers will develop uterine cancer. The study revealed an increased risk of the cancer for women who used hair straighteners. The risk of uterine or ovarian cancer will also vary depending on factors such as age, family history, and overall health.
“Being a member of AAJ, I have strong links with US based lawyers who are involved in these claims, allowing me an opportunity to remain updated and at the forefront of developments in the litigation. At this stage, we are investigating the merits of bringing a hair relaxer claim in the UK and trying to establish the number of women who may have been affected. If you have had a diagnosis of either uterine or ovarian cancer and have used hair relaxers four or more times during a 12-month period, we may be able to help you.”