Hair relaxers have been around for over 100 years. Within minutes, chemical products can straighten frizzy or curly hair.
But now more than 100 lawsuits across the United States have been filed against companies that make some of these products.
The US branch of L’Oréal and the owners of other hair relaxers are named in the lawsuits – brands include Dark & Lovely, ORS Olive Oil and Motions.
Lawsuits claim these products contain dangerous chemicals that cause cancer and other health problems. They claim that the companies knew this, but marketed and sold the products anyway.
The first lawsuit was filed days after a study was published in October 2022 by the National Institutes of Health, a US government biomedical research agency.
They investigated the possible link between the use of hair relaxers and ovarian cancer.
Nearly 34,000 participants were followed for more than 10 years. During this period, 378 ovarian cancers were diagnosed. The study also found that those who use straighteners more than four times a year have a slightly higher risk of developing the condition.
The study’s lead author, Alexandra White, explains that the researchers “estimated that 1.64% of women who did not use hair straighteners would develop ovarian cancer by age 70.”
“But for heavy users, that risk rises to 4.05%,” he adds.
Further research is needed
However, Caris Betts, senior manager of health information at Cancer Research UK, says that while the study suggests a link, there is no clear evidence that hair straightening products actually increase a person’s risk of developing cancer. , the greater the risk may be.
“At this time, there is not enough good quality scientific evidence to show that these products cause cancer,” he says.
“More research is needed in larger, high-quality studies to confirm the link. Although there is an increased risk of cancer from hair straightening, it is important to remember that this is lower than known causes of cancer such as age . . ., smoking and obesity.”
Ovarian cancer is relatively rare, Karis says — so even with a slightly higher risk, it’s still not as common.
How do hair relaxers work?
- Relaxers are creams or lotions that contain chemicals to soften frizzy and curly hair.
- They break disulfide bridges—a type of chemical bond found within hair strands—reorganizing curly or curly hair patterns;
- There are different types of relaxers: bleach relaxers use sodium hydroxide, non-bleach relaxers use other active ingredients such as calcium hydroxide or guanidine hydroxide; There are still those who use ammonium thioglycolate;
- They are permanent, but the new hair that is born and grows continues in its natural structure;
- Some companies offer alternative products for women with coarse hair.
Scientists have not been able to identify a specific chemical or ingredient in the hair relaxer formula that could be dangerous – and said more research is needed.
But lawsuits also allege the products cause other health problems, such as fibroids.
These benign growths in the uterus can cause heavy menstrual flow and severe cramping.
One woman, named in court filings, says she had a hysterectomy (removal of all or part of the uterus) as a result of the condition.
She is one of at least 20 clients represented by personal injury attorney James Foster and his firm.
“She was one of the models on the cover of one of the products she used,” she says. “She really believed in these products and was willing to put herself in their packaging.”
“Now that it’s come to light, it’s been very devastating for this particular client. She’s very young and obviously it’s been very difficult for her.”
Some believe that chemicals found in some hair relaxers may interfere with the body’s production of hormones.
Certain cancers such as ovarian, breast and ovarian cancer are hormone sensitive.
In 2021, a study published in the Journal of Carcinogenesis at the University of Oxford in England found some evidence that excessive use of hair relaxers containing lye as an ingredient may be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. specific cancer.
However, the study said more research needs to be done to confirm this is true.
The study prompted activist group Level Up to launch a #NoMoreLyes petition in 2021, asking big brands like L’Oreal to stop using the ingredient.
Level Up says it has yet to hear back from the company to a request for detailed information on the safety of the chemicals in its hair relaxers.
The group has now issued an open letter to L’Oréal, asking the company to withdraw products containing bleach from sale and invest more in research.
10 Members of Parliament also signed it.
“I feel like we’re being ignored on purpose,” says activist Ikamara Larasi. “With an open letter, I hope they will take the time to respond.”
“It frustrates me,” he adds. “I think people have an attitude of ‘OK, don’t use it.’ [relaxantes] So, but there are so many reasons why people straighten their hair, it’s not a valid argument.”
A spokesperson for L’Oreal in the UK told the BBC that while it does not import or sell Dark & Lovely products in the country, it has responded to all inquiries from UK consumers, saying “we ensure that we maintain the highest quality. Safety standards for all our products”.
L’Oréal’s highest priority is the “health, well-being and safety” of all its consumers, and its products undergo rigorous scientific evaluation of their safety by experts to ensure strict adherence to all regulations in all markets. They act on it. And he believes the lawsuits filed against the company “have no legal merit.”
BBC’s If You Don’t Know podcast has also approached Godrej Sun Holdings Inc and Dabur International Ltd. The companies also make hair relaxer chemicals and are named in court filings — but did not respond to our requests for comment.
In Brazil, the National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa) recommends that consumers check the company’s activity authorization number (AFE) and process number (product registration number) on the products’ packaging to find out if the straightening product is safe. Consultation can be done on Anvisa website.
According to Anvisa, unregistered straighteners are illegal because all hair straighteners, including imported ones, must be registered.
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