The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed a ban on hair-straightening products that contain or emit formaldehyde, more than ten years after experts in the cosmetic industry declared these products to be unsafe.
The frequent use of chemical hair straighteners has been associated with a potential increase in the risk of developing uterine (endometrial) cancer. Women who frequently use these products face more than double the risk compared to those who do not use them.
Other studies have linked hair straighteners and dyes to breast and ovarian cancer. The FDA’s scientists classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen seven years ago, and the agency’s lawyers began drafting a proposed ban at that time.
Occupational groups, such as embalmers, exposed to high levels of formaldehyde have higher rates of rare cancers such as myeloid leukemia. Immediate reactions to formaldehyde can include irritation of the eyes and throat, coughing, wheezing, or chest pain. Chronic or long-term problems may include frequent headaches, asthma, skin irritation, and allergic reactions.
Hair-straightening products are predominantly marketed to Black women. Although rates of uterine cancer have been increasing among all women in recent years, the steepest increase has been observed among women of color, including Asian and Hispanic women.
The FDA’s proposed rule aims to prohibit formaldehyde and other formaldehyde-releasing chemicals from hair-straightening and hair-smoothing products sold in the United States, with an intended ban date of April 2024.
Some treatments, such as so-called keratin treatments, claim to be free of formaldehyde but contain methylene glycol, which converts to formaldehyde gas upon exposure to air (methylene glycol is considered to be formaldehyde in a solution by scientists).
The FDA has always had the authority to ban specific ingredients like formaldehyde and has previously removed about a dozen ingredients, including mercury compounds, from cosmetics.
However, the cosmetic industry was largely unregulated until last year when the FDA was granted oversight authority by Congress. The proposed ban is not directly related to this new authority, according to the FDA.
The expanded oversight does not mean that new products will typically undergo agency review before being marketed to the public. However, manufacturers of shampoo, nail polish, makeup, and other items are now required to register their manufacturing sites with the FDA and disclose the ingredients on the packaging.
The FDA also has the authority to issue mandatory recalls of cosmetic products in the event of a serious health concern or death.
Controversy surrounding formaldehyde in hair straighteners has persisted for years. The Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, petitioned the FDA in 2011 and again in 2021 to ban hair products containing formaldehyde.
The FDA’s lawyers began drafting rules for a proposed ban in 2016, but the process was quickly halted without explanation a few months later.
Melanie Benesh, Vice President for Government Affairs at the Environmental Working Group, stated, “The FDA has known for decades that these products are dangerous. There is no reason for them not to have taken action sooner.”
“This is the first public indication we’ve seen that they are planning to ban it in hair-straightening products,” added Ms. Benesh. She emphasized that these products pose a real risk to hair stylists and customers exposed to formaldehyde vapor during the treatment.
Currently, the FDA encourages consumers to read the labels of hair products before purchasing them and to avoid those containing formaldehyde, formalin, or methylene glycol. The agency also urges consumers to inquire about the products used by hairdressers and report any adverse reactions.