Melissa Juried Kriebel
Three years ago, Rhonda Terrell was diagnosed with an aggressive form of uterine cancer that has since spread to her abdomen and liver.
She underwent a radical hysterectomy — the removal of the uterus, cervix, ovaries and fallopian tubes — and tried to come to terms with the way the disease had altered her life.
“I don’t like to look at the survival rates,” Terrell said through tears.
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“Cancer is such a painful, painful, painful condition.”
Terrell is one of four women, three of whom spoke to NBC News exclusively, who have filed federal lawsuits against L’Oréal and other companies, alleging that chemicals in the companies’ hair products caused them to develop uterine cancer or other severe health effects.
The lawsuits follow the release last month of a study by the National Institutes of Health that found that women who reported frequent use of hair straightening products — defined as more than four times in the previous year — were more than twice as likely to develop uterine cancer compared to those who did not use the products.
According to the lawsuits, three of the women have had a hysterectomy — one of them at age 28.
Terrell, 55, of Guin, Alabama, said she began relaxing her hair at age 8 and stopped in her late 30s or early 40s.
She has uterine carcinosarcoma and underwent six rounds of chemotherapy and was in remission for a little over two years before the cancer returned in July on her liver and abdomen, according to an interview and her lawsuit. She is undergoing chemotherapy.
“If I had known all those years ago, if they had a warning on the box to say this could cause cancer, I wouldn’t have used it,” she said. “And I want to hold them accountable because I have granddaughters.”
Bernadette Gordon, who used chemical relaxers from around 1983 to 2015, believes they caused her to develop breast and uterine cancer.
According to her lawsuit, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 at age 44, underwent six months of aggressive chemotherapy and had a double mastectomy in March 2018.
In 2021, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and underwent a hysterectomy, followed by six months of chemotherapy and radiation.
Gordon, 49, of Springfield, Illinois, grew emotional as she recounted the toll the back-to-back cancer diagnoses and treatments have taken on her body and her life.
“It’s been devastating for me,” she said.
All of the women said that they were unaware that the use of chemical hair straighteners had put them at an increased risk of cancer until the release of the NIH study.
There was never anything on the products’ packaging, they said and their lawsuits allege, indicating that normal use of the products could cause them to develop uterine fibroids or breast or uterine cancer.
Alexandra White, head of the environment and cancer epidemiology group of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the lead author on the study, cautioned that the study did not prove that hair straightening products caused uterine cancer.
“This study is the first to show a possible link between frequent use of hair straightening products and uterine cancer,” she said.
But the women and their lawyers believe otherwise. Diandra Debrosse Zimmermann, who is among the attorneys representing the women, said that “the science is out there that supports our position”.
She said the complaints cite a number of studies that she believes will prove chemical hair straighteners “are substantial contributing causes and ultimately cause uterine cancer and a number of other conditions”.
Hair products such as dye and chemical straighteners/relaxers contain a number of chemicals that may act as carcinogens or endocrine disruptors and thus may be important for cancer risk, White said.
Straighteners in particular have been found to include chemicals such as phthalates, parabens, cyclosiloxanes and metals and may release formaldehyde when heated, she said. L’Oréal did not return a request for comment as to whether its products could or did include these ingredients.
The researchers did not collect information on brands or ingredients in the hair products the women used.
Rates of uterine cancer are still relatively low, accounting for 3.4 per cent of estimated new cancer cases this year, according to the National Cancer Institute. Rates of uterine cancer in the US have been increasing, however, especially among black women.
White said the study showed black women were disproportionately more likely to use hair straighteners. The study found that 1.64 per cent of women who never used chemical hair straighteners or relaxers would go on to develop uterine cancer by the age of 70, and for frequent users, that risk more than doubles, increasing to 4.05 per cent.
In a statement, L’Oréal said it is “confident in the safety of our products and believe the recent lawsuits filed against us have no legal merit”.
“L’Oréal upholds the highest standards of safety for all its products,” the company said. “Our products are subject to a rigorous scientific evaluation of their safety by experts who also ensure that we follow strictly all regulations in every market in which we operate.”
L’Oréal also shared a statement from the Personal Care Products Council, a national trade association representing cosmetics and personal care products companies, in response to the study, stating that the study did not prove that the products or their ingredients directly caused uterine cancer.
It also states that all cosmetics products and their ingredients, including hair straighteners and relaxers, are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
The other companies named in the lawsuits did not return requests for comment. The women are seeking compensatory damages, as well as payment for medical bills, attorneys fees and other expenses.
Rugieyatu Bhonopha, 39, of Vallejo, California, and Jenny Mitchell, 32, a Missouri resident whose plans to have children were dashed when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer at 28 and underwent a hysterectomy, both have filed lawsuits.
They, like the other women, said they used chemical hair straighteners because they felt societal pressure — including from employers — to wear their hair straight and to try to meet white beauty standards. This has changed over time as more women embrace their natural hair textures and wear natural hairstyles.
“I have to worry about whether or not I’m going to get it again, if it’s going to come back in a different form,” Mitchell said. “Once you have uterine cancer, you can be more susceptible to colon cancer or to breast cancer. A lot of people don’t know that.”
Bhonopha, whose lawsuit was filed October 21, believes her fibroids were directly caused by her regular and prolonged exposure to phthalates and other endocrine disrupting chemicals found in the hair care products she used.
“It’s a hard thing to have to come to the realisation that you’re dealing with fibroids, pregnancy loss,” she said. “And you had no inkling that these products were dangerous, you didn’t know that any of these harmful products were in it. Obviously, you wouldn’t have used them if you knew.”
Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who is also representing Mitchell and Gordon, said the lawsuits are about bringing awareness and getting these products off of store shelves.
“It’s about trying to tell every black and brown parent out there that we should not continue to try to conform to European standards of beauty by having our hair straightened with these chemicals, at the expense of possibly having our uterus destroyed, and not being able to have babies,” Crump said.
“So it is a public health crisis.”