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NAACP resolution addresses hair relaxer cancer risk

Tanisha Bhat

The NAACP is expected to pass a resolution during its convention that begins this week on educating more Black women about the link between hair relaxers and uterine cancer.

The resolution comes after a recent study linked these products to a higher risk of uterine cancer, and lawsuits have been filed against five hair care companies alleging that years-long use of their harmful hair straighteners poses serious health risks.

“Black women for years have been using hair straightening products, but the science wasn’t providing us with the warning that it led to certain types of cancer,” said Michael Curry, former president of the Boston NAACP branch and current member of the national board.

“When you don’t prioritize the research agenda of Black America, then they’re not looking at what harms us,” he added.

Black women often face pressure to adopt Eurocentric beauty, especially in the workplace, since their naturally curly hair has long been viewed as “unprofessional.” Many start using hair relaxers that straighten their hair at a very young age, and continue into adulthood.

“We estimated that 1.64% of women who never used hair straighteners would go on to develop uterine cancer by the age of 70; but for frequent users, that risk goes up to 4.05%,” said Alexandra White, the lead author of the Sister Study, which researched the link between relaxers and cancer.

Uterine cancer makes up about 3% of all new cancer cases but it is the most common reproductive cancer for women, according to the National Cancer Institute. Studies by the National Institutes for Health also show that incidence rates of uterine cancer have been rising in the United States, specifically among Black women.

Curry, who is chief executive of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, said the resolution speaks to one social determinant that is causing Black women to have poorer health outcomes.

He added that the resolution will also support and encourage greater research on the health effects associated with these products.

“This is pretty important,” he said, “and I think now is the time to start to look at some of these things that we’ve been availing ourselves of as consumers, but they’re killing us.”

The resolution, written by NAACP president and chief executive Derrick Johnson, also calls for the organization to file or join litigation that seeks to support and protect those harmed by these products.

Black women’s use of relaxers has long been an issue of debate, as more women have been demonstrating the beauty of Black women’s natural hair. But the products are still in wide use.

Just last fall, Jenny Mitchell filed a federal lawsuit, claiming that prolonged use of relaxers caused her to get uterine cancer and led that her getting a hysterectomy.

“I was devasted,” she told the Washington Post last year.

She is suing L’Oréal, SoftSheen Carson, Strength of Nature, Dabur and Namaste Laboratories, the paper said. Her suit blames the companies for promoting and selling these products despite knowing the adverse effects since at least 2015. It alleges that the company had “a duty to fully and accurately disclose all material facts regarding the products” but instead concealed key defects that harm customers. 

“[The haircare companies] explicitly and/or implicitly represented that the products were safe and effective,” the complaint said.

Mitchell, who is 33 and from Missouri, said she had been using relaxing hair products since she was 10. She was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2018 and had a hysterectomy — a procedure that removes all or a part of the uterus. She also experienced an early onset of menopause at the age of 30 and can no longer biologically have children, the complaint said.

“She comes from a really large family and has a lot of siblings, and so having a family was always at the center of her plan,” said Diandra Debrosse Zimmermann, a lawyer representing Mitchell. “It’s been rough on her physically, it’s been rough on her emotionally. It’s impacted her life in such a significant way.”

Several other women from across the country filed similar lawsuits against L’Oréal. The cases have all been consolidated into a federal multidistrict litigation proceeding in the Northern District of Illinois.

Zimmerman, the co-lead counsel along with three other lawyers representing the women, said she is happy that the NAACP is using its convention as a platform to address these issues and educate more women. Black women’s curly coils have been historically viewed as “less attractive, less desired, not professional, not neat,” she said.

“It became a norm, culturally, to relax hair,” she said. “And it became a necessity for quite some time in terms of being seen as professional, being able to remain employed, which obviously is central to survival.”

Curry said there is a high likelihood that the NAACP resolution will pass.

Black hair, cancer, hair relaxer, NAACP