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Traccye Love looking into camera through mirror

Traccye Love used hair relaxers for years and believes the chemicals in those hair products are related to her uterine fibroids. Love, of Oak Park, had a hysterectomy two years ago and is one of thousands of women who have filed suit against the hair care companies.

Pat Nabong

Smooth and straight — and now sick? Thousands of Black women are suing the makers of hair relaxers in federal court in Chicago.

Growing up in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood in the late 1990s, Traccye Love wished for the long, smooth tresses of pop star Aaliyah.

“That was the look then — smooth and straight,” said Love, of Oak Park. “My mom would press it (with a hot comb), but I wanted it to stay straight.”

Love wasn’t allowed to get her first chemical hair relaxer until she turned 18. For most of the women in her close-knit, predominantly Black community, the rite of passage of using relaxers to straighten their naturally kinky, thick hair had come much younger. Love’s mother worried about the dangers of using a relaxer: chemical burns or brittle hair caused by lye and similar chemicals in hair-straightening products.

Throughout college, and well into her 30s, Love slathered on chemicals from home straightening kits every six weeks or so. Then, in her late 30s, she began to feel knee-buckling abdominal pain during her menstrual cycles — on her worst days each month, Love downed five 200-milligram tablets of ibuprofen every four hours.
“It felt like someone was taking my ovary and twisting it like a balloon,” Love said.
After several years and trips to three different doctors, tests revealed Love had multiple, golf ball-sized fibroid tumors in her uterus. In 2022, at the age of 38, she had a hysterectomy. She was still using hair relaxers until her husband spotted a social media post about lawsuits targeting the manufacturers. She now thinks the relaxers caused her tumors.
“It had never occurred to me that there was serious risk [to using relaxers],” Love said. “I thought the risk was getting scalp burns.”

Traccye Love looking in bathroom mirror with beauty products on counter

Traccye Love in her mother’s bathroom in Oak Park. Until she heard about lawsuits targeting the makers of hair relaxers, it never occurred to her they might not be safe.

Pat Nabong

In October 2022, the first of several thousand lawsuits was filed at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in the Loop by a woman from St. Louis claiming that chemicals in hair relaxer products she used — such as Soft Sheen, Just for Me and Dark & Lovely — caused her cancer.
Near-identical lawsuits began piling up in state and federal courts across the U.S. The federal cases — now counting 8,500 plaintiffs, with more added every week — were consolidated last year in front of a single federal judge in Chicago. Dozens of cases have been filed in Cook County, and dozens more are in front of judges in local jurisdictions across the country. Love filed a lawsuit of her own in June.
Through the 1990s, Chicago was the epicenter of the Black-owned, Black hair industry. Homegrown companies including Soft Sheen, Johnson Products and Namaste Laboratories built brands that were Black household names. In recent decades, sales and mergers have seen multinational corporations take over the brands that dominate the market. But the wave of litigation has meant that Chicago is again playing a central role in the fate of the industry.

Aaliyah wearing black shirt and silver necklace, looking into camera

R&B singer and actress Aaliyah in 2001. Many girls and woman modeled their hair after the ‘bone straight’ style popularized by the pop star.

Jim Cooper

The pool of plaintiffs is likely to get much deeper: Nine out of 10 Black women have used hair relaxer products at some point during their lives, with many of them using them regularly for a decade or longer. The litigation could continue for decades, as the related conditions — uterine cancer, fibroids and other illnesses — may have yet to appear in women who were using the products recently.

The wave of litigation in 2022 began just weeks after the National Institutes of Health released a study that found that women who used hair relaxers regularly developed uterine cancer at more than twice the rate of women who did not. Previous studies on relaxer use and chemicals — which commonly contain chemicals such formaldehyde, phthalates and parabens — have shown higher rates of breast and ovarian cancer, higher incidence of fibroids and more aggressive tumor growth.

“I feel like if a product is even possibly linked to a serious condition, it should be outlawed,” Love said. “At least with cigarettes, there’s a warning.”
A spokesman for L’Oreal directed reporters to a November 2023 statement on the lawsuits from the company, which noted that the uterine cancer study did not make a “causal connection” to the products and medical conditions identified in the lawsuits.
“While we understand the desire of each plaintiff to find answers to and relief from their personal health concerns, we are confident in the safety of SoftSheen-Carson’s products and believe the allegations made in these lawsuits have neither legal nor scientific merit,” the statement reads.

close-up of hair relaxer product being applied to woman's hair

LaQuana Johnson, a cosmetologist and owner of Elite Hair Therapy, applies hair relaxer on her client’s hair at her salon in the Bronzeville neighborhood last fall.

Pat Nabong

And in a 2022 statement from Personal Care Products Council, an industry organization. Kimberly Norman, the organization’s senior director of safety and regulatory toxicology, notes that an “association does not equal causation.”

“The association observed in the study is with people who straighten their hair, not the ingredients in hair products or any specific chemicals as this data was not collected,” the statement reads.

Key hair relaxer studies

October 2022: Uterine cancer

National Institutes of Health finding: Regular hair relaxer users were more than twice as likely to develop uterine cancer as women who did not use the product. The researchers estimated that 4% of frequent users of hair straighteners would develop uterine cancer by age 70; for nonusers, the risk was 1.6%, according to the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

July 2021: Breast cancer

Carcinogenesis finding: Researchers found no clear evidence that hair relaxer use was associated with breast cancer risk for most women. But heavy users of lye-containing products — at least seven times a year for 15 years or more — had an increased risk of breast cancer. Results of the few previous studies on this topic are inconsistent, the researchers said. One, a May 2021 study, found use of perms and straighteners during adolescence may be associated with a higher risk of premenopausal breast cancer.

January 2012: Fibroids (uterine leiomyomata)

American Journal of Epidemiology finding: Among premenopausal Black women, researchers observed increased risks of fibroids in association with use of hair relaxers. The researchers said these findings “raise the hypothesis that hair relaxer use increases uterine leiomyomata risk.”

* All of these findings come from two major long-term data sets: the “Black Women’s Health Study,” which has been tracking tens of thousands of women since 1995, and the “Sister Study,” a breast cancer study that has been tracking tens of thousands of women since 2003.

Beauty standards and hair relaxers in the U.S.

Love’s story is a common one for Black women in America: At some point in childhood, girls or their parents turned to relaxers when the labor required to coax their thickly coiled hair into braids or pigtails, or the regimen of hot combs and oils, becomes too much work. Often, the desire to look like the smooth-haired woman peering out from magazines and boxes on home relaxer kits became the attraction.

The roots go back to slavery and colonialism in the U.S. When enslaved Africans were brought to America, their traditional hairstyles were effectively banned by racist codes. The definition of “good hair,” as straight and coiffed in European style, was eventually reinforced by the beauty industry and by dress codes that banned styles like locs and braids.

Even where Black hairstyles aren’t banned outright, they aren’t exactly welcomed: In a recent survey, two-thirds of Black women reported changing their hairstyles ahead of job interviews, and 41% of them opted to straighten their hair. In 2021, relaxers accounted for $718 million in sales across the globe.

Recently, lawmakers have taken on the problem of discrimination based on hairstyles. Since 2019, Illinois and 23 other states have adopted some version of the CROWN Act — Creating a Respectful and Open World Natural Hair — legislation that expands discrimination laws to include ethnic hairstyles.

The jingle for Soft Sheen’s “Just For Me” relaxer — marketed specifically to young girls — is what grabbed attorney April Preyar as a child.

The sing-song tune was stuck in Preyar’s head after she was contacted by a large personal injury law firm in the fall of 2022 and asked to help recruit Black women as clients in the relaxer lawsuits.

Preyar has always practiced criminal defense and civil rights law, and a massive product liability case seemed out of her wheelhouse. But Preyar got her first hair relaxer, or “perm,” at age 11 and went to a salon every six weeks for a touch-up until she was in her mid-20s. She even took a part-time job in college — money solely spent on getting her hair proverbially “fried and laid.”

side shot of April Preyar in light green shirt looking into camera

Attorney April Preyar outside the Orland Park Civic Center after speaking at the 2023 Curvy Girls Takeover on Sept. 30, 2023. Preyar, a criminal defense attorney, talked to attendees about lawsuits that allege a link between hair relaxers and various forms of cancer.

Pat Nabong

Like Traccye Love, Preyar emulated a certain R&B singer.

“I wanted it bone straight, like Aaliyah, with it hanging down in my face,” Preyar said.

Two days before Thanksgiving last year, she signed on to be the face of the lawsuit in Chicago.

“I personally think this will be the largest lawsuit of its kind with Black female victims.”

Preyar, who went natural in 1999, spent more than a year taking speaking engagements and TV interviews — on CNN and at the Black Women’s Expo in Chicago last August. Law firms have taken out ads on bus stops and billboards in predominantly Black neighborhoods across the United States.

The scientific evidence

The science linking at-home hair relaxers — which have likely changed formulas numerous times since the most popular products were developed in the 1960s — to certain illnesses is not airtight. A direct correlation between relaxer use, much less a specific product, and illness has not yet been documented — which is not necessarily unusual even in successful lawsuits, said Noah Smith-Drelich, a professor at IIT-Kent College of Law who has studied mass torts like the relaxer case.

“That kind of correlation, where you can say, ‘This chemical or this product caused this specific illness for this person,’ is just not something that science is going to be able to produce,” Smith-Drelich said.

“What science does better is probabilistic (to) say more broadly that this group of people have this level of exposure and have this increase in developing this injury,” Smith-Drelich said.

Phthalates, a possible carcinogen known to interfere with the endocrine system and likely an element of the fragrances used in relaxer products, have been banned in most consumer products in Europe as well as in some U.S. states, including California.

FDA regulations for cosmetics and beauty products don’t require a detailed listing of ingredients on the label, and phthalates are commonly used to make perfumes last longer and often are identified on packaging only as “fragrance.” But there have been recent moves that show federal agencies are looking at the formulas for hair relaxers. In January, the Food and Drug Administration announced it was considering a ban on formaldehyde — which is commonly used in dyes and relaxers — in hair products.

Moves to regulate, or at least require warnings about potentially hazardous chemicals in hair relaxers, are overdue, said Traci Bethea, a Georgetown University researcher who co-authored a commentary on the 2022 NIH study that found an association between relaxer use and higher rates of uterine cancer. While definitive links between the chemicals and a variety of endocrine conditions and related cancers have yet to be made, a growing body of research has provided worrisome data.

“Yes, chemicals are complicated in how they interact with the human body and with each other, and there are more studies necessary,” Bethea said. She and her co-authors “felt like there’s enough information from (laboratory) models, as well as the human patterns of behavior and health outcomes.

“We really should be doing more to educate folks, to hold industry accountable for what they know and what they are producing, and to have other broader interventions in terms of regulation and better-designed studies,” she said.

Jasmine Valentine smiles while applying hair relaxer product to client's hair

Jasmine Valentine, whose hair styling business is called Crowned by Jai, prepares a client’s hair for a weave at The Exotic Haus Salon Suites in the Roseland neighborhood on Dec. 16, 2023.

Pat Nabong

The move away from relaxers among Black women

Jasmine Valentine, whose hair styling business is called Crowned by Jai, got her first perm at age 5 or 6 and kept getting the white cream applied until age 18. That’s when she finally stopped.

“I didn’t like how they made my hair feel. I didn’t like the side effects that they have, which is perm burns,” Valentine, 32, said.

Today, only two of her clients — out of 100 — still ask for relaxers. Valentine said well before the lawsuit there has been a trend away from relaxers because there are hotter curling irons to get hair straighter and more Black haircare products that prevent frizziness.

Valentine doesn’t think the lawsuits are making an impact yet. She has a lot of stylist friends, but she said none of them know, or are talking, about the suits.

“I hope that in this lawsuit, they find out what’s the root of the problem because it’s just sad,” Valentine said. “I hope that they’re able to be compensated for anything that the relaxer has caused.”

She said Black women historically relaxed their hair because “we were taught to hate ourselves. We were taught to hate our skin. We were taught to hate anything that was ethnic and natural about us. So they put people on TV that were lighter, that had straighter hair. Or that looked a certain way and, you know, everybody wants to live up to those standards.”

LaQuana Johnson standing at table in hair salon

LaQuana Johnson, owner of Elite Hair Therapy, gives hair relaxers but doesn’t recommend women apply them at home on their own.

Pat Nabong

Stylist LaQuana Johnson said only about six of her 40 regular clients at Elite Hair Therapy in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood come to her for relaxers. Ebony Grisby-Terry, a high school teacher, is one of them.

Johnson checks, sections and meticulously bases Grisby-Terry’s scalp with a grease before applying the relaxer. The process takes about 30 minutes. When it’s time to apply the relaxer, Johnson is careful not to brush chemicals on the scalp but only on the wavy new growth.

Grisby-Terry, 45, has been getting relaxers since grade school and has no plans to stop.

“I don’t like the natural hair on me. I don’t care for the shrinkage. I like the length that the relaxer gives. And I just don’t like doing my own hair at all. There’s a lot of maintenance involved with the natural hair,” Grisby-Terry said.

Johnson is aware of the studies and the lawsuit, but they haven’t deterred her from giving relaxers. Johnson points out the products she uses in the salon require a professional license and typically cost more than three times as much as home kits.

Arther Sanders standing in cluttered room

Arther Sanders said he hasn’t been able to clean out the room in his Detroit home where he found his deceased wife, Sheree Sanders. She died of uterine cancer in January. Sheree Sanders started wearing her hair straight in the mid-1990s. She filed a lawsuit after she was diagnosed with cancer in 2019.

Ashlee Rezin

A long road ahead

There may well be another decade of research available before the first cases go to trial in the federal cases, and about as long for those filed in state courts. It’s already been nearly two years since the first federal lawsuit was filed and lawyers are still negotiating over what company records need to be turned over and how.

Meanwhile, women and their family members wait.

Sheree Sanders filed a federal lawsuit in February 2023, claiming that her decades of relaxer use led to her uterine cancer. Her husband, Arther Sanders, only learned about the case this January, when a letter from a law firm arrived at their house the day before her funeral.

Sheree started wearing her hair straight well before she and Arther became a couple in the mid-1990s, and Arther spotted a box of Dark & Lovely relaxer in her medicine cabinet soon after they moved in together. “I used to tell her, ‘You know I love you because you’re dark and you’re lovely,’ ’’ Arther Sanders said in an interview from his home in Detroit.

Sanders still finds hair care products in the bedroom where Sheree spent most of her days after she was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2019. She had a hysterectomy, followed by more surgeries to remove tumors, as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She died in January at age 58.

The surgeries left her unable to continue working as a home health care aide, and complications from the operations sapped her vivacious personality.

Arther Sanders sitting on living room couch with plants on table in front of him and paintings and photos hanging on wall behind him

Arther Sanders in his Detroit living room surrounded by photos of his wife, Sheree Sanders, and her plants, which he said she called her ‘babies,’ on March 24, 2024.

Ashlee Rezin

“I would always hear her crying, and she would say, ‘My life will never be the same,’ ” Sanders said.

“She didn’t associate any of those [hair products] with cancer. If she had known that or thought that, she wouldn’t have used them.”

Andy Grimm covers the courts and criminal justice for the Sun-Times. Natalie Y. Moore is the Race, Class and Communities editor at WBEZ.

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