Hair relaxer caused Missouri woman’s cancer, lawsuit alleges

A lawsuit filed against L’Oreal and Chicago-based Namaste Laboratories cites federal study data of elevated cancer rates among women who used relaxers.

SHARE Hair relaxer caused Missouri woman’s cancer, lawsuit alleges

Jenny Mitchell, center, was diagnosed with uterine cancer four years ago. She is suing cosmetics firm L’Oreal and other firms, alleging they knowingly marketed hair-care products that contained chemicals that cause cancer. Representing her is attorney Ben Crump, right.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A Missouri woman claims chemicals in hair-relaxer products caused her cancer and rendered her unable to bear children, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court in Chicago.

Since she was in the third grade, Jenny Mitchell said she has used products made by cosmetics firm L’Oreal and Chicago-based hair care line ORS to straighten her curly hair, not knowing they contained chemicals linked to endocrine disorders and cancer, the Waynesville, Missouri, native said Monday as she stood with her attorneys outside the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. Four years ago, at age 28, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and had a hysterectomy.

“All I wanted to do is what any woman dreams of doing, and that is to bear children,” Mitchell said, choking up. “I’m still feeling that void of not being able to bear my own child.”

A lawsuit Mitchell filed last week against L’Oreal, ORS and three other manufacturers of straightening products was the first filed over links between the products and cancer, her attorney, Ben Crump, said. Crump and co-counsel Diandra “Fu” Debrosse Zimmermann have filed similar lawsuits in federal courts on behalf of women in New York and California.

“L’Oreal and a number of other defendants ... knew that these chemicals were toxic, that they led to cancer, that they led to endocrine disorders, and they led to the kind of conditions that alter people’s lives, that alter their ability to have children,” Zimmermann said.

The lawsuit lays out the history of hair-straightening products that have been marketed to Black consumers since the early 20th century, products that used harsh substances such as lye to chemically relax curls — and often caused chemical burns and scalp lesions that increase users’ exposure to carcinogenic compounds. The global market for hair-straightening products generated some $718 million in sales in 2021, the lawsuit states, and in some studies, as many as 90% of Black women report having used straighteners and relaxers.

“This is a public health crisis,” Crump said, calling on parents not to allow children to use straightening products. “I don’t care what America tries to tell you what’s beautiful and what’s not. You are beautiful just as you are, and it is not worth your health, it is not worth your ability to have children just to have straight hair.”

The suit claims that the companies did not warn users that the products contained phthalates, a group of chemicals that may be linked to higher rates of cancer, despite studies dating to 2011.

A report released last week by the National Institutes of Health cited data from a study of 34,000 Black women ages 35 to 74 that found a higher rate of uterine cancer among women who used straightening products, and other studies have found elevated incidences of breast cancer and glandular disorders.

“Defendants continue to market, advertise, and expressly represent to the general public that it is safe for women to use their product. These Defendants continue with these marketing and advertising campaigns despite having scientific knowledge that dates back to 2011 that their products increased the risk of cancer in women,” the lawsuit states.

Representatives of Namaste Laboratories, the South Loop-based maker of the ORS and Olive Oil lines of curl relaxers, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday. L’Oreal makes the Soft Sheen line of hair care products.

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