The ever-evolving fashion trends and the quest of seeking sleek, straight hair for sophisticated aesthetics – the beauty market has witnessed a rise in the popularity of hair straightening products over the years.

However, a recent wave of concerns has emerged after studies have been published claiming that certain chemical straighteners, particularly formaldehyde-based hair products, pose serious health threats. This has caught the attention of the regulatory authorities compelling them to take a definitive stance against such products. 

In response to the rising health concerns, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently proposed a ban on hair straighteners containing formaldehyde. If the new rule gets approved, the ban will be implemented by April 2024.

Health advocates are calling it a “win for public health” as the chemical has been found to increase the risks of cancer as well as certain diseases.

This article talks about the harms of using formaldehyde hair straighteners and the driving forces which have led to an impending ban on such products.

Formaldehyde and its Use in Hair Products

Formaldehyde is a colorless, odorless and highly toxic compound commonly used in the manufacturing of germicides, disinfectants, and embalming fluids as well as a preservative in certain medications.

The chemical was used in cosmetic products for the first time in Brazil at the beginning of the 21st century. The formulation soon gained much popularity as it gave the hair a smooth, shiny look that was difficult to acquire with any other chemical relaxers at that time. Yet, the consumers complained about the strong smell and burning of eyes, nose and mouth. 1

Later on, these chemical hair straighteners were majorly marketed to Black women as a result of the extreme politicization of the anti-Black hair sentiments. To achieve social and economic acceptance and advancement, Black women adapted these chemical relaxers for straightening their hair while the manufacturers made huge profits out of it.

The popularity has declined, over the years, because of the growing awareness about the potential health risks associated with formaldehyde exposure in beauty products. However, a large proportion of hair products sold to Black women still contain formaldehyde-related compounds. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 50% of the products marketed to the Black community contain these toxic chemicals compared to 7% of the products used by white women.

Formaldehyde Products Potentially Linked to Cancer Risks – New Studies Revealed

Chemical hair straightening formulations are applied over the hair and sealed with heat treatment. The heat causes the release of formaldehyde gas which is harmful to our health. Exposure to this toxic compound can irritate the skin and airways which may trigger asthma and breathing problems.  

Fumes generated during chemical hair straightening

However, recent studies have claimed that long-term exposure to formaldehyde and its related compounds can increase the risks of certain cancers.

A 2021 study reported that women who use hair straighteners or chemical relaxers containing formaldehyde at least four times a year had a higher likelihood of developing ovarian cancer.2 Similarly, another study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2022, provided the first epidemiological evidence of the potential association between chemical hair straightener use and uterine cancer.3 Some researchers have also found it linked to breast cancer as well. 4

The cancer preponderance is greater among Black women due to the higher utilization of such products. It can be imagined by knowing that about 75% of the Black women use hair straighteners during their adolescence as compared to the 3% of non-Hispanic white girls.

Recently, research conducted by Boston University among 45,000 Black women, has shown that those who used chemical hair relaxers twice a year for over five years had a 50% greater risk of developing uterine cancer. 5

FDA Takes Action

FDA already labeled formaldehyde as a human carcinogen back in 2016.

Now, in the light of growing evidence and continuous pressure from health advocates and policymakers, the FDA has finally proposed a ban on formaldehyde-based hair products in October 2023.

While talking for a press release, an FDA representative said that the agency is considering a ban on the chemical hair straighteners having formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals as they emit human carcinogens which can cause long-term adverse effects on health.

The response has come after years of pressure from health experts, researchers as well as the recent calls from two U.S. congresswomen, Ayanna Pressley and Shontel Brown. The two black women wrote a letter to FDA commissioner, Robert Califf, requesting a thorough and transparent investigation on whether such products are posing a threat of developing uterine cancer.

After serious consideration, the FDA has finally proposed a ban on such products. The process of finalizing and implementing the rule could take some time, however, it is anticipated that the complete ban will be in effect by April 2024.

How to Know Which Hair Products to Avoid?

As per the regulatory guidelines, manufacturers must list the ingredients on the packaging of the product.

So, before purchasing or using any hair product, you should inspect its ‘ingredients’ section to look for the following chemicals;

  • Formaldehyde
  • Formalin
  • Methylene glycol
  • Methanol
  • Methanediol

Avoid the hair straightening products containing them. Ask your salon professionals to use products free of any such chemicals. Meanwhile, look for alternatives in the market.

However, sometimes, these chemicals are not explicitly labeled on the packaging. Instead, their synonyms or other compounds are mentioned which on heating can release the carcinogenic fumes of formaldehyde. These may include dimethoxymethane, decamethylcyclopentasiloxane, timonacic acid, etc. So, always do a thorough inspection before choosing a chemical hair straightener to keep your cancer risks in check.

Bottom Line

Due to the mounting evidence about the potential cancer risks associated with formaldehyde-containing hair straighteners, the FDA has proposed a ban on these products. Consumers are advised to scrutinize the product ingredients and seek alternatives to minimize the potential health risks posed by these chemical formulations. 

References

  1. Dias MF. Hair cosmetics: an overview. International journal of trichology. 2015 Jan;7(1):2.
  2. White AJ, Sandler DP, Gaston SA, Jackson CL, O’Brien KM. Use of hair products in relation to ovarian cancer risk. Carcinogenesis. 2021 Sep 1;42(9):1189-95.
  3. Chang CJ, O’Brien KM, Keil AP, Gaston SA, Jackson CL, Sandler DP, White AJ. Use of straighteners and other hair products and incident uterine cancer. JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2022 Dec 1;114(12):1636-45.
  4. White AJ, Gregoire AM, Taylor KW, Eberle C, Gaston S, O’Brien KM, Jackson CL, Sandler DP. Adolescent use of hair dyes, straighteners and perms in relation to breast cancer risk. International journal of cancer. 2021 May 1;148(9):2255-63.
  5. Bertrand KA, Delp L, Coogan PF, Cozier YC, Lenzy YM, Rosenberg L, Palmer JR. Hair relaxer use and risk of uterine cancer in the Black Women’s Health Study. Environmental Research. 2023 Dec 15;239:117228.
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