The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just proposed a ban on hair-straightening products containing formaldehyde after years of discussion about the safety of the chemical.
The proposal would essentially ban the use of formaldehyde (FA) and other chemicals that release formaldehyde, such as methylene glycol, in hair-smoothing and straightening products such as relaxers and keratin treatments. According to the FDA’s proposal, “Use of hair-smoothing products containing FA and FA-releasing chemicals is linked to short-term adverse health effects, such as sensitization reactions and breathing problems, and long-term adverse health effects, including an increased risk of certain cancers.”
Relaxers and smoothing or straightening products are primarily used by Black women, putting them at higher risk for potential health issues. In October 2022, a study by the National Institutes of Health found that “women who used chemical hair-straightening products were at higher risk for uterine cancer compared to women who did not report using these products.”
For many experts, these findings do not come as a huge surprise. “Hair products, such as dye and chemical straighteners, contain a number of different chemicals that may act as carcinogens or endocrine disruptors [molecules that mimic or mess with hormonal function], and thus may be important for cancer risk,” Dr. Alexandra White, an epidemiologist at the US National Institute of Environmental Health Safety, told Allure in 2022. “Straighteners, in particular, have been found to include chemicals such as phthalates, parabens, cyclosiloxanes [a type of silicone, used as a solvent, which have also been classified as endocrine disruptors], and metals [like nickel and cobalt, which can at certain levels and in some compounds likely become carcinogenic] and may release formaldehyde when heated.”
Formaldehyde has long been a hot topic in the beauty world. When Brazilian Blowout smoothing treatments became popular in the late 2000s, they were flagged for their use of formaldehyde and the state of California required hazard warnings be printed on packaging. According to a New York Times report from 2020, the FDA wanted to ban the Brazilian Blowout and its fellow smoothing treatments due to the presence of formaldehyde or methylene glycol, considering them “unsafe,” and began working on a proposed ban in 2016, though nothing came of it at the time.