The Food and Drug Administration proposed a rule that would ban formaldehyde as an ingredient in chemical hair straightening and smoothing products sold in the U.S.
Is the FDA proposing a ban on some chemical hair straighteners and smoothing products?
Yes, the FDA is proposing a ban on chemical hair straightening and smoothing products that contain or emit formaldehyde.
WHAT WE FOUND
In early October, the FDA proposed a rule that would ban formaldehyde and other formaldehyde-releasing chemicals as an ingredient in hair straightening and smoothing products sold in the U.S. These chemicals have been linked to short and long-term health issues, including breathing problems and increased cancer risk.
Exposure to formaldehyde, a colorless, strong-smelling gas, can irritate the lungs, eyes or skin. The chemical has also been classified as a human carcinogen because it has been linked to certain cancers at high levels of prolonged exposure, according to the FDA.
Formaldehyde is commonly used in glues and resins, dyes, textiles, disinfectants, building materials, automobile parts, embalming and laboratories, the CDC says on its website. It is also used as a food preservative and in some household products, such as certain antiseptics, medicines and cosmetics.
Hair smoothing products used to straighten hair or smooth out curls often contain formaldehyde or its liquid forms, formalin or methylene glycol. When a hair straightening or smoothing solution is applied to a person’s hair and then heated — typically with a flat iron device that seals the solution into the strands of the hair — the formaldehyde in the product is released into the air as a gas, potentially posing health risks for salon professionals and their clients if the salon is not properly ventilated, the FDA says.
In March, U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and U.S. Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio) wrote a joint letter to the FDA urging the agency to investigate the health risks of chemical hair straighteners that contain carcinogens that lead to a higher risk of uterine cancer.
Pressley and Brown cited a 2022 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute by researchers at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in their letter. The study found that frequent chemical hair straightening doubled the risk of developing uterine cancer among women, compared with those who did not use the products. The same research team previously found in 2019 that permanent hair dye and chemical straighteners may increase breast and ovarian cancer risk.
Pressley and Brown noted that chemical hair straightening and smoothing products are often marketed to Black women to alter the appearance of their hair due to natural hair discrimination and anti-Black hair sentiment. A study conducted by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health showed that harmful chemicals were found in “about 50 percent of products advertised to Black women,” as opposed to just 7% of those marketed to others.
“The increased risk disproportionately impacts Black women and contributes to national racial health disparities,” the lawmakers wrote in March. “Consumers need to be reassured that the cosmetic products they use do not threaten their health.”
In 2021, the Environmental Working Group, Women’s Voices for the Earth and salon workers from around the U.S. petitioned the FDA to ban chemical hair straighteners that contain formaldehyde. The organizations have been asking the FDA to consider banning the chemical from hair straighteners or requiring manufacturers to put warning labels on products if they contain or release formaldehyde for over a decade.
After the FDA proposes a rule, it first requests and reviews public comments, and then it decides whether further action is needed based on those comments. The next steps may include deciding “to end the rulemaking process, to issue a new proposed rule, or to issue a final rule in the Federal Register,” the FDA explains on its website.
On Oct. 6, Pressley and Brown called the FDA’s proposed ban “a win for public health – especially the health of Black women who are disproportionately put at risk by these products.”
If you’re considering buying or using a chemical straightening or smoothing product, the FDA recommends reading the list of ingredients on the label or asking your salon professional to check if it contains or emits formaldehyde. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) shares a list of several chemical hair-straightening products with formaldehyde on its website.
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