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Thousands of Black women are suing chemical relaxer makers over cancer risks

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Hair care is big business in the United States. People spend tens of billions of dollars a year on hair products, including chemical relaxers, which can straighten curly hair. Now thousands of Black women are suing the makers of hair relaxers in a federal court in Chicago. They took legal steps after scientific studies associated frequent use of the products with an increased risk of certain cancers. Natalie Moore from member Station WBEZ in Chicago has the story.

NATALIE MOORE, BYLINE: Chicago was once the epicenter for Black hair care, with several companies based here. In the 1980s, it was fairly common to see and hear ads for hair relaxers on television and radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The fact is, Dark and Lovely has successfully relaxed over 20 million heads of hair.

MOORE: Some 40 years later, ads like those aren't as popular. But on the south side of Chicago, hairstylist LaQuana Johnson carefully preps her client's hair before she brushes creamy, white chemicals on the wavy new growth.

LAQUANA JOHNSON: I am sectioning her in four quadrants.

MOORE: Johnson takes pride in being a professional, and her products require a license. She doesn't recommend women buy over-the-counter box relaxers to apply at home.

JOHNSON: You're not really following the instructions correctly 'cause you just lack the knowledge of it 'cause you think, oh, I seen it done at the salon. You know, she did this. She did that.

MOORE: Johnson feels confident that her technique is protecting high school teacher Ebony Grisby-Terry. She's in her 40s and has been getting relaxers since grade school.

EBONY GRISBY-TERRY: I like the length that the relaxer gives. I just don't like doing my own hair at all. There's a lot of maintenance involved with the natural hair.

MOORE: In its natural state, hair of African descent is coily and dense. Going back to slavery, the texture was seen as inferior to white beauty standards. Relaxers use semipermanent chemicals to achieve a straightened look.

In 2022, a National Institute of Health study found that women who regularly used hair relaxers developed uterine cancer at more than twice the rate of women who did not. Previous studies on relaxer use and chemicals have shown higher rates of breast and ovarian cancer, a higher incidence of fibroids and more aggressive tumor growth.

And that has led to Black women filing lawsuits ever since. Many of those lawsuits consolidated into a federal complaint that claims 9 out of 10 Black women have received a chemical relaxer at some point in their lives. Now there's a nationwide effort to recruit Black women with ads like these.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Did you or a loved one develop cancer after using hair relaxing or hair straightening products? If so, you may be able to sue the hair product manufacturer for damages.

MOORE: L'Oreal, Namaste and SoftSheen-Carson are among the parent companies named in the lawsuit. But companies have said allegations made in these lawsuits have neither legal nor scientific merit. April Preyar, a Chicago-based attorney, cut off her relaxer more than 20 years ago and wears her hair natural. She helped recruit women for the lawsuits. It could take decades before there's resolution in those cases. But Preyar compares relaxers to another product when she thinks about what success could look like.

APRIL PREYAR: I think it's going to be like cigarettes. No, they're not off the market, but they have a warning label on the side. And that way, women can make an informed decision.

MOORE: A decision about whether the risks that may come with chemically straightened hair are worth it.

For NPR News, I'm Natalie Moore in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR SONG, "SING ABOUT ME, I'M DYING OF THIRST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Natalie Moore is WBEZ's South Side Reporter where she covers segregation and inequality.