FDA Plans to Ban Hair-Straightening Chemical Products

The agency intends to ban formaldehyde and other harmful chemicals in hair relaxers and straighteners that studies have linked to breast and uterine cancer.

According to a document entered into the Unified Agenda — a docket disclosing potential actions by administrative agencies — the FDA plans to propose a ban on specific chemicals found in hair smoothing or hair straightening products marketed in the United States.

Specifically, the proposed ban includes formaldehyde and other formaldehyde-releasing chemicals, such as methylene glycol.

The agency says hair-straightening chemical products that contain these compounds are linked to several short- and long-term adverse health effects. These include allergic reactions, breathing issues, and a heightened risk of certain types of cancer.

As the FDA's proposed rule moves forward, the agency will accept and review public comments on the potential ban, then decide whether to end the process, issue a new proposed rule, or issue a final rule. However, it's unclear how long this process will take.

What are the dangers of hair-straightening chemical products?

Women with tightly curled hair commonly use chemical hair relaxers and straighteners to smooth their hair's texture and make it easier to care for and manage. These products are often marketed to Black women more than white women, as Black women tend to have this hair type.

However, a 2020 study found links between permanent hair dyes and hair straightening products and an increased risk of breast cancer — especially among Black women.

In addition, a 2022 NIH study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that women who reported using hair straightening products more than four times in the previous year were more than twice as likely to develop uterine cancer than those who did not chemically straighten their hair.

About 60% of the participants who reported using chemical straighteners in the previous year were Black women.

Reports also suggest that hair relaxers may be linked to infertility issues.

A study recently published in Environmental Research found that postmenopausal Black women who reported using chemical hair relaxers more than twice a year or for more than five years had a nearly 50% increased risk of uterine cancer.

On March 15 of this year, two members of Congress, representatives Ayanna Pressley, D-Massachusetts, and Shontel Brown, D-Ohio, wrote a letter urging FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation to determine whether consumer-available chemical hair straightening products harbor potential carcinogens that could lead to uterine cancer.

In an October 6 press release, they applauded the proposed rule.

Representative Pressley said, "The FDA's proposal to ban these harmful chemicals in hair straighteners and relaxers is a win for public health – especially the health of Black women who are disproportionately put at risk by these products as a result of systemic racism and anti-Black hair sentiment. Regardless of how we wear our hair, we should be allowed to show up in the world without putting our health at risk."


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