Leading attorneys, Diandra “Fu” Debrosse Zimmerman, Michael London, and Larry Taylor discuss the deep-rooted history of the Chemical Hair Straightener litigation and share actionable insights for lawyers who want to get involved.
Since the early 1900s, women have been using products to chemically straighten their hair. Recent studies have shown a link between some of those products and cancer. In our third edition of ‘The Davids’ webcast, we speak with the key attorneys for this litigation and gain insights into what they know about the suit so far and where they see it going. Watch the full webcast here.
The history of chemical hair straightening.
Chemical hair straightener products, or relaxers, are chemical treatments used by people with coarse or curly hair to relax the coils in their hair and achieve a straighter look. While these products are considered “permanent”, the straight effects typically last 30 days or so, leading to consistent use by consumers.
The first chemical hair relaxer was created in the early 1900s and in 1971, Dark and Lovely manufactured the first relaxer using lye. As research came out about the negative effects of lye, brands removed lye from their formula and used that as marketing to encourage trust amongst buyers, while many of the products still contain harmful ingredients.
Cosmetic manufacturers are required to ensure their products are safe, however, there is little regulation for testing and what has to be shared with the FDA. Many of these brands, according to Fu, rely on loopholes, such as labeling the product as “For Professional Use Only” and not having to disclose every ingredient, to get around some of the standards. While they may not be in violation of some of the standards set forth, the resounding effect is that the ingredients are harmful and are not safe for people to use.
The disproportionate effect on women and children of color.
The importance of the appearance of a woman’s hair draws back to the times of slavery when women of color were required to cover their hair with a scarf as a way of signifying their slave class. Larry explains that after the abolishment of slavery, women of African descent “went to great lengths to change their hair” in an effort to maintain their livelihood and assimilate with their European counterparts.
To this day, hair is not a protected class and employers have legal grounds to dictate and let someone go based on the appearance of their hair. Eurocentric standards of beauty continue to set expectations of hairstyle, which fuels the industry of chemical hair straightening products.
Many brands like “Dark & Lovely” and “African Pride”, which Fu considers “Identity Brands”, are specifically targeted towards women of color, while some like “Just for Me” are marketed directly towards children of color. This has resulted in women using the products many times a year from a young age and into their adulthood to fit in and meet those standards of beauty set forth by society.
Research shows chemical hair straightener products that contain ingredients like Formaldehyde, Bisphenol A, Metals, and Parabens puts consumers who use the products at an increased risk of developing Uterine and Ovarian cancer, making users over twice as likely to develop cancer from them. While there has been some research to suggest breast cancer could be a qualifying injury, Michael doesn’t expect it to be compensable in this case and urges lawyers not to move forward with those cases.
The research also shows that the association with cancer becomes stronger with use. While there is evidence suggesting the minimum use should be at least 4 times per year, the longer the use the stronger the case. As Michael describes it, there is longevity in use”. According to Fu, “It’s going to be a fight to show the use and the continuity of the use”, so the importance of obtaining product usage proof and medical records should not be overlooked. While obtaining the proper medical records may be straightforward, verifying product usage may prove more difficult. Obtaining photos, receipts, salon records, and witness statements from your clients, and obtaining them early, will be the best way to set the cases up for success.
What to know if you want to get involved.
This team is eager for others to get involved in this important litigation; however, they urge leading with caution as this suit is still in its early stages. They encourage the careful choice of cases that have research-backed injuries, as well as ensuring there is enough usage proof and getting that proof early.
Fu, Larry, and Michael have stressed the importance of everyone walking in line to ensure the litigation is handled properly and the people affected have the best shot at justice. If anyone is looking to get involved and doesn’t know where to start, reaching out to this group is a good jumping-off point. They have vowed to extend their expertise to answer questions about the case, exposure, product claims, where to file, how to file, or navigating bankruptcy and are eager to help others get involved.
Interested in staying up-to-date on the latest in tort developments and upcoming webcasts? Subscribe to our Tort Report newsletter.