FDA’s Proposal: Ban on Hair Relaxers Containing Formaldehyde
Hair relaxers, also known as hair straighteners, have a complex history tied to issues of race and beauty standards. Garrett A. Morgan, an African American, created the first hair relaxer in the early 20th century to straighten his curly hair. He called it the “G.A. Morgan Hair Refiner.” It used chemicals to make hair straight. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that hair relaxers became popular in the African-American community. It was a way to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards.
A restriction on the use of formaldehyde in hair relaxers.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is proposing a restriction on the use of formaldehyde in hair relaxers. A step aimed at raising awareness about potential risks associated with these products, particularly for the many Black women who commonly use them. The proposed regulation would prohibit the inclusion of this chemical in hair-smoothing or hair-straightening products, also known as relaxers. Currently, the FDA advises consumers against using hair-straightening products containing formaldehyde and similar substances, as stated in information from the agency.
Used in various household products, including medicines and cosmetics.
Formaldehyde, a colorless and flammable gas, is used in various household products, including medicines and cosmetics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is highly toxic, and repeated exposure can irritate the eyes, skin, lungs, and throat. Additionally, it has been associated with certain types of cancer. This includes myeloid leukemia, a cancer affecting the blood and bone marrow, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Even products that do not primarily contain formaldehyde may include other elements that can transform into formaldehyde when heated, like methylene glycol, found in some hair-straightening products. Some soaps, shampoos, lotions, and cleaning products contain formalin, which is a solution of formaldehyde in water.
Currently, the law does not mandate FDA approval of cosmetic products and ingredients before they enter the market. However, there is an exception for color additives, as stated on the agency’s website. Companies and individuals selling products have a legal responsibility to ensure the safety of their items. However, federal laws and regulations do not compel these companies to share their safety data with the FDA.
Greater awareness of potential risks.
In recent years, research has contributed to greater awareness of potential risks associated with using chemical hair relaxers. A study published last year by the National Institutes of Health found that women who used hair-straightening chemicals more than four times a year were over twice as likely to develop uterine cancer as non-users. While the study did not collect specific brand or ingredient information from participants, it did note that formaldehyde, parabens, and other elements in chemical hair straighteners might contribute to the elevated risk of uterine cancer.
The FDA’s proposed ban follows an open letter written by Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Shontel Brown of Ohio in March. They urged the federal agency to investigate whether chemical hair straighteners contain carcinogens that elevate the risk of uterine cancer. The letter highlighted that many Black women use these hair-straightening products to conform to societal norms influenced by anti-Black hair bias.
In the last year, a number of lawsuits have been filed by Black women against cosmetic manufacturers. This includes Revlon and L’Oréal. These women accused these companies of being responsible for their various health issues due to their hair-straightening products. These include uterine cancer, and breast cancer. Additionally, in some instances, these women have said that these products led to infertility.