The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking significant steps to ensure the safety of hair products. The agency recently proposed a ban on hair straighteners that contain or emit formaldehyde. This move comes after prolonged concerns, considering that over a decade ago, the cosmetic industry’s experts had already flagged these products as unsafe.
Chemical hair straighteners have been under scrutiny for some time. Research has connected frequent use of these products to a heightened risk of uterine or endometrial cancer. Alarmingly, women who frequently use these products have been found to possess more than double the risk of developing this type of cancer compared to those who abstain.
The FDA’s concern about formaldehyde isn’t limited to hair products. The agency classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen seven years ago after multiple studies connected hair dyes and straighteners to various cancers, including breast and ovarian. During that period, the FDA’s legal team began the drafting process for the proposed ban.
Exposure to elevated formaldehyde levels is harmful, as seen in professions such as embalming. These workers demonstrate increased rates of myeloid leukemia and other rare cancers. Immediate symptoms of formaldehyde exposure can be severe, manifesting as eye and throat irritation, coughing, wheezing, and chest pain. Long-term exposure can lead to chronic issues like frequent headaches, asthma, skin irritations, and allergic reactions.
A concerning demographic affected by this issue is Black women, as hair straightening products are predominantly marketed to them. Recent data reveals that while uterine cancer rates have been rising across all women, the spike is notably steeper among women of color, encompassing Black, Asian, and Hispanic women.
The FDA’s new rule aims to prohibit the use of formaldehyde and chemicals that release formaldehyde in hair straightening and smoothing products sold in the U.S. The ban’s anticipated enforcement date is set for April 2024. Some hair treatments, although marketed as formaldehyde-free, contain methylene glycol, a compound that transforms into formaldehyde gas upon exposure to air.
Historically, the FDA has held the power to ban specific harmful ingredients. The agency has previously removed numerous ingredients, including compounds of mercury, from cosmetic products. The cosmetic industry saw minimal regulation until the recent past when Congress endowed the FDA with oversight capabilities. This expanded oversight, however, doesn’t necessarily mean every new product will be reviewed before market release. Cosmetic manufacturers are now mandated to register their production sites with the FDA and declare ingredients on product packaging.
Formaldehyde’s presence in hair straighteners has been contentious for years. The Environmental Working Group, a prominent advocacy organization, had petitioned the FDA twice – in 2011 and 2021 – to prohibit hair products containing formaldehyde. Melanie Benesh, from the Environmental Working Group, emphasized the risks to hairdressers and consumers alike. She stated, “The FDA has known for decades now that these products are dangerous.” The FDA currently advises consumers to be vigilant about product labels and avoid those containing formaldehyde or similar compounds.