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FDA Ban on Formaldehyde in Hair Relaxers: What It Means for Black Women

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has proposed a ban on chemical hair relaxer products containing formaldehyde or similar ingredients for April 2024. Even if a hair relaxer does not contain formaldehyde as a main ingredient, it may have ingredients that turn into formaldehyde when heated, such as methylene glycol or formalin. The use of hair relaxers containing formaldehyde is currently discouraged by the FDA, according to a fact sheet from the agency, but this proposal further solidifies the FDA’s stance. This proposed ban is a public health win, especially for Black women, who are disproportionately put at risk by these products due to anti-Black hair sentiment.  

What is Formaldehyde? 

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas that is a preservative known to prevent microbes from growing. However, it is also known to cause adverse health effects. It is used in many household products, such as medicines and antiseptics, and is an ingredient in some cosmetics. When chemical hair relaxers are used, formaldehyde gas is released into the air and can cause immediate eye and throat irritation. Repeat exposure can contribute to long-term problems. These problems include: 

  • Frequent headaches 
  • Asthma attacks in people with asthma 
  • Skin irritation 
  • Allergic reactions 
  • Nausea 
  • Chest tightness and trouble breathing 

Frequent hair relaxer use could also increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer, including ovarian, endometrial, and uterine cancer. 

Hair Relaxers and Cancer 

In October 2022, a National Institute of Health study found that women who used chemical hair relaxers more than four times in one year were more than twice as likely to develop uterine cancer. These findings were consistent with previous studies that linked chemical hair relaxer use to an increased risk of hormone-related cancers in women. Hormone-related cancers in women include breast, ovarian, endometrial, and uterine cancers.  

Formaldehyde – and similar chemicals like phthalates and parabens – are known as “Endocrine Disruptors.” Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are not inherently dangerous but can significantly affect a person’s hormones.  

Though formaldehyde is in many household products, its presence is more concerning in chemical hair relaxers because it requires heat to straighten hair properly. The added heat not only releases formaldehyde gasses but can also cause burns and lesions on the scalp. With scalp wounds, the body absorbs the chemicals more easily, which can enter the bloodstream. 

The study found that approximately 60% of the participants who reported using hair relaxers in the previous year were Black women. Black women tend to use chemical hair relaxer products more than women of other races due to Eurocentric beauty norms that discourage Black women from wearing their hair in its naturally textured state. Many women of color began using chemical hair relaxers as children due to the stigma surrounding their hair in schools and found that the stigma continued as they entered the workplace. Many schools and businesses had rules that dictated how women of color needed to style their hair. These rules favored straight, untextured hair and discriminated against women wearing natural hair or protective hairstyles such as braids, locs, twists, or Bantu knots. As a result, many women turned to hair relaxers and straighteners to comply with discriminatory workplace expectations. 

Some studies found that the societal pressure for Black women and girls to fit the Eurocentric beauty standards caused girls as young as four years old to use hair straightening products and techniques. (Wright DR et al. (2011)). 

The CROWN Act 

The CROWN Act, which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” is a law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination in educational and professional environments. It was first introduced in California in January 2019 and signed into state law in July. It is currently a law in 23 states – Maryland and Virginia both recognize the CROWN Act as law. Twenty-one other states currently have the legislation filed or pre-filed. In March 2022, a Bill known as the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act, or the measure H.R. 2116, passed in the U.S. House of Representatives. Unfortunately, when it was brought to the Senate that December, it did not pass.  

The FDA and Banned Products 

This case is not the first time the FDA has proposed a ban or entirely banned products. In 2022, the FDA banned talc, an ingredient found in many different health and beauty items, most notably in baby and talcum powder. The FDA banned talc-containing products due to a possible link to ovarian cancer and asbestos contamination. So, the FDA may ban a cosmetic product if they have reliable information showing the product may negatively affect public health.

Formaldehyde, Cosmetics, and Other Countries 

The FDA is not the first regulatory body to consider banning formaldehyde in cosmetics. On July 8, 2022, the European Union banned formaldehyde-containing cosmetics after formaldehyde was officially named a carcinogen, known as a cancer-causing chemical. 

The European Union reduced the amount of formaldehyde allowed in cosmetics from 0.05% (500 parts per million (ppm)) to 0.001% (10 ppm). The changes will not be immediate as the E.U. has agreed to give manufacturers “reasonable time” to implement the necessary changes. However, all labeling and ingredient changes must occur by July 31, 2026. 

Canada has recently updated their regulations regarding formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals in hair relaxer products. Formaldehyde concentrations in hair relaxer products in Canada are not permitted to exceed 0.01% (100 ppm).

Formaldehyde Across the U.S. 

While the FDA regulates products nationally, States can also regulate food, drugs, and other products manufactured in and imported to their jurisdictions. On May 15, 2023, the Washington State Governor signed the “Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act” into law. This Act bans many harmful and cancer-causing chemicals, including formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals. Like the European Union’s approach, the ban will not have an immediate effect but rather give the manufacturers time to reformulate their products and update their packaging. Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals must be removed from cosmetics by 2026. 

Washington State has acknowledged that people of color, particularly women, are disproportionately affected by these carcinogenic chemicals. Citing an article from the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the Toxic Free Future states that African American women buy “nine times more ethnic hair and beauty products than other groups.” These ethnic hair and beauty products include chemical straighteners and hair relaxers.

Currently, only four States regulate formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals in cosmetics: California, Maryland, Washington, and Minnesota. However, Minnesota only regulates formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals in children’s products. With less than 10% of the U.S. States regulating formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals, this proposed ban, if enacted by the FDA, would be hugely beneficial to many Americans, but most notably and importantly, women of color. 

Ingredients to be Aware of 

Ingredient names that can be difficult to decipher crowd product labels. Unlike the E.U., the U.S. does not require manufacturers to clearly label products containing formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing ingredients. This labeling can leave the uninformed consumer unaware of the risks associated with the product they purchase.

For example, many keratin-based hair relaxer products contain formaldehyde and related chemicals. However, not all keratin-based hair relaxers contain formaldehyde, nor are all non-keratin-based products formaldehyde-free. So, knowing which formulas and brands are safe can be challenging without checking. Therefore, always check the product ingredients to be sure of its contents. Ingredients to be aware of include formaldehyde, formalin, and methylene glycol. 

Find a Hair Relaxer Lawsuit Lawyer in D.C.

The Cochran Firm continues to assist clients with Hair Relaxer claims. Our attorneys have extensive experience assisting clients with complicated class action lawsuits, guiding them every step of the process. If you or a loved one used chemical hair relaxers and were later diagnosed with ovarian, endometrial, or uterine cancer, you may be eligible to pursue compensation.

Link to Hair Relaxer information page: https://www.cochranfirm.com/litigation/hair-relaxer/

Further reading:

https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32022R1181

https://dtsc.ca.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/31/2021/05/Chemicals-in-Hair-Straightening-Products-Background-Document.pdf

https://www.paramountbeauty.com/msds/brazilianblowout/brazilian_sds8-2018.pdf

https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/consumer-product-safety/cosmetics/labelling/safety-ingredients.html#a4.4

https://www.ajog.org/article/S0002-9378(17)30862-1/fulltext

https://www.saferstates.org/news/strongest-law-in-the-u-s-regulating-toxic-chemicals-in-cosmetics-signed-by-washington-state-governor-today/

https://toxicfreefuture.org/washington-state/campaign-2023-washington-state-cosmetics-bill/

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