A Harford County woman who developed uterine cancer after using hair relaxers for decades is suing the cosmetics company L’Oreal, joining of a growing wave of lawsuits brought by Black women who say their health suffered because of harmful chemicals in the products.
The new complaint filed this week in U.S. District Court in Maryland is likely to be consolidated into multidistrict litigation that has already been launched in the Northern District of Illinois.
The plaintiff is Stephanie Littles, an Edgewood resident who was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2020 at age 64. She used L’Oreal hair relaxers, which include chemical compounds known as phthalates, from 1977 until late 2019, according to the lawsuit.
L’Oreal has not filed a response to the Maryland lawsuit.
The lawsuit joins dozens of others that have been filed against cosmetic companies since the release of a National Institutes of Health report in October that found women who use hair straightening chemicals are at a higher risk for uterine cancer.
The study found that women who frequently use hair straightening products are more than twice as likely to develop uterine cancer as those who did not use the products. Black women may face heightened risks because they use these products at higher rates, the study authors wrote.
The lawyer representing Littles in the Maryland lawsuit, Christopher T. Nace, did not return a request for comment Tuesday. L’Oreal USA Inc. also did not return a request for comment, but said in a statement in October that the company is “confident in the safety of our products and believe the recent lawsuits filed against us have no legal merit.”
The judge overseeing the multidistrict litigation in Illinois appointed Benjamin L. Crump, a civil rights attorney who gained national recognition for representing the families of Black people killed by police, as co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs along with lawyers from three other firms.
Multidistrict litigation consolidates lawsuits that involve common claims from among district courts across the United States, merging them for discovery purposes and dispositive motions. If the lawsuits survive motions to dismiss or for summary judgment, they can be transferred back to their original court for trial or become part of a global settlement.
The Maryland lawsuit accuses L’Oreal of negligence and failing to warn consumers of the health risks associated with chemicals used in hair relaxer products. The complaint details the history of hair relaxers in the United States, which have long been marketed toward Black women.
The suit argues that Black girls and woman often use these products because of the racism they can face for wearing natural hair or other traditionally African-American styles. Twenty states, including Maryland, have passed legislation banning hair-based discrimination by employers, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
Under current regulations, cosmetics manufacturers carry the burden of assessing whether their products are safe and warning consumers of potential health hazards, according to the Maryland lawsuit.
“Here, a wealth of scientific information is available regarding long-term use of hair relaxers, straighteners and hair dyes as containing certain endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which should have alerted manufacturers of these products to the specific and dangerous harms associated with their products when used as intended, particularly in women of color,” Nace wrote in the complaint.
Hair relaxers can cause burns and lesions to the scalp, allowing chemicals to enter the user’s body, according to the complaint. The suit claims that cosmetics companies like L’Oreal should have known and warned customers that phthalates and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals in their hair products could increase cancer risks.
Littles began using hair relaxers when she was 21 years old, according to the complaint, and used the products as instructed.
“There was never any indication, on the products packaging or otherwise, that this normal use could and would cause her to develop uterine and/or endometrial cancer,” Nace wrote.
Littles underwent a full hysterectomy in April 2020, according to the complaint. The lawsuit requests unspecified damages for “pain, suffering emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life and other non-economic damages.”