L'Oreal targeted in proposed B.C. class action linking hair relaxers to cancer in Black women
New claim alleges products like Dark & Lovely are 'dangerous, defective and not fit for purpose'
Shamara Hutchinson was just 15 years old when she learned she had ovarian cancer.
"It was terrifying," the resident of Port Coquitlam, B.C., told CBC. "I thought getting the cancer diagnosis was a death sentence."
More than a decade later, thanks to punishing chemotherapy treatments in her teenage years, Hutchinson says she has "for the most part" fully recovered.
Now 27, she recently learned that cancers like hers have been linked to certain chemicals in the hair relaxers and straighteners she used regularly for years before her diagnosis.
"I was like, wow … if these products do have cancer-causing chemicals in them, it's a real possibility that this is the causation of my illness," she said.
Hutchinson, a social work student, is one of two representative plaintiffs in a proposed class action lawsuit against cosmetics giant L'Oreal, which produces the popular Dark & Lovely line of relaxers, and other manufacturers of these products, including Strength of Nature and Dabur USA.
The notice of claim, filed in B.C. Supreme Court earlier this month, alleges these products "are dangerous, defective and not fit for purpose."
None of the allegations have been proven in court and the claim has not been certified as a class action. The defendants have yet to file responses.
Similar claims have been filed in a number of U.S. states, including California and Illinois, but this is believed to be the first in Canada. The plaintiffs' lawyer, Richard Chang, said additional suits are expected in other provinces soon.
'We didn't know we shouldn't use it'
Hair relaxers are mainly marketed to and used by Black women. They work by damaging the protein structure of the hair to remove natural texture, and need to be re-applied every few months as the hair grows out.
They can also cause serious burns, which allows the chemicals to absorb more easily into the scalp, the claim says.
The second representative plaintiff in the lawsuit is 32-year-old Elle Wayara of Vancouver, who spoke to CBC while recovering from surgery to remove four fibroids from her uterus. These non-cancerous tumours, which can cause severe pain and menstrual irregularities, have also been linked to hair relaxers and straighteners.
She remembers learning about the potential connections between these products and certain health problems, and speaking with Black friends who were also dealing with reproductive system issues.
"It's surprising, not surprising, shocking, not shocking, and also just sad, because how many illnesses could have been avoided had we not used it — because we didn't know we shouldn't use it," Wayara said.
WATCH | Elle Wayara explains why she used hair relaxers and straighteners from an early age:
The lawsuit alleges a direct connection between use of these products and various cancers, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, abnormal reproductive tract formation, pregnancy loss, abnormal puberty onset, developmental abnormalities, infertility and metabolic syndrome.
It says the hair relaxers and straighteners "contain hormonally active and carcinogenic compounds, such as phthalates, known to cause endocrine disruption, that are not listed separately as ingredients but, instead, are often broadly grouped into the 'fragrance' or 'perfume' categories."
The claim accuses the cosmetics companies of extensive misconduct, including failing to investigate reports of adverse effects, issue recalls or warn customers and health professionals.
"The fact that these products are still on the shelves, people are still able to get their hands on it … it seems like they just don't really care because it's making them money," Hutchinson said.
Wayara said she's particularly troubled because these products are directly targeted to Black women, who often experience significant barriers in the health-care system, including not being believed by doctors when they report symptoms of dangerous conditions.
Black people also face discrimination because of their natural hair texture, and straightening it is a response to that, she added.
"We're trying to adapt and we're trying to conform in a way that we're not having to deal with these issues on a daily basis," Wayara said.
CBC has contacted the cosmetics companies for comment.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.