In April, twelve years after a federal agency classified formaldehyde a human carcinogen, the Food and Drug Administration plans to tentatively disclose a proposal Consider banning the chemical in hair straightening products.
The move comes at a time of growing alarm among researchers about the health effects of hair straighteners, products widely used and heavily marketed to black women. But advocates and scientists say the proposed regulation would do too little and come too late.
“The fact that formaldehyde is still allowed in hair care products is mind-boggling to me,” she said. Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program. “I don’t know what we’re waiting for.”
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When asked why it is taking so long to get the issue on the FDA’s agenda, And Mandjé BumpusThe regulatory agency’s chief scientist told KFF Health News: “I think mostly the science has progressed.”
“In addition,” he added, “the agency is always balancing multiple priorities. It is a priority for us now.”
The FDA’s glacial response to concerns about formaldehyde and other dangerous chemicals in hair straighteners partly reflects the agency’s limited powers when it comes to cosmetics and personal care products, according to lynn goldman, former deputy administrator for toxic substances at the Environmental Protection Agency. Under the law, he said, the FDA must consider all chemical ingredients “innocent until proven guilty.”
Critics say it also points to broader problems. “It’s a clear example of a failure to protect public health,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, which first asked the agency to ban formaldehyde in hair straighteners in 2011 and sued. for the issue in 2016. “The public is still waiting for this response.”
Mounting evidence linking hair relaxers to hormone-induced cancers led Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Shontel Brown (D-Ohio) last year to urge regulatory agency to investigate flat irons and straighteners.
The FDA responded by proposing to do what many scientists say the agency should have done years ago: initiate a plan to eventually ban chemical relaxers that contain or emit formaldehyde.
Such a ban would be a crucial step for public health, but it is not enough, scientists studying the issue said. The elevated risk of breast, ovarian and uterine cancer that epidemiological studies have recently associated with hair straighteners is likely due to ingredients other than formaldehyde, they said.
Formaldehyde has been linked to an increased risk of upper respiratory tract cancer and myeloid leukemia, Bumpus he said in a video announcement of the proposed ban of X, formerly known as Twitter. But Kimberly Bertrand, an associate professor at Boston University’s Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine, and other scientists said they were unaware of any studies linking formaldehyde to reproductive or hormone-driven cancers that prompted recent calls for the FDA to would act.
“It’s hard for me to imagine that removing formaldehyde will have an impact on the incidence of these reproductive cancers,” said Bertrand, an epidemiologist and lead author of the study. a study published in Decemberthe second links hair straighteners to an increased risk of uterine cancer.
Hair products intended for African Americans contain a large amount of dangerous chemicals, said Tamarra James Toddassociate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health who has studied the topic for 20 years.
Studies have shown that relaxer ingredients include phthalates, parabens and others endocrine disrupting compounds They mimic the body’s hormones and have been linked to cancers, as well as early puberty, fibroids, diabetes and gestational high blood pressure, which is a key factor in black women’s enormous risk of maternal mortality, James-Todd said.
“We have to do a better job of regulating the ingredients that people are exposed to, particularly some of the most vulnerable in this country,” he said. “I mean, kids are exposed to these.”
The first study linking hair straighteners to uterine cancer, published in 2022, found that frequent use of chemical straighteners more than doubled a woman’s risk. This followed studies showing that women who frequently used hair straighteners doubled their risk of ovarian cancer and had a 31% increased risk of breast cancer.
Bumpus praised the studies as “scientifically sound” and said he would leave to epidemiologists and others questions about whether relaxer ingredients, other than formaldehyde, could be contributing to an elevated risk of hormone-driven cancers.
He could not offer a timeline for the formaldehyde ban, except to say that the agency was scheduled to begin proceedings in April. The timeline could change, she said, and she didn’t know how long the process would take to finalize a rule.
Brazilian hairstyles and similar hair straightening treatments sometimes use formaldehyde as a glue to keep hair straight for months. Stylists often seal the product into the hair with a flat iron. The heat turns liquid formaldehyde into a gas that creates vapors that can make salon workers and clients sick.
In addition to cosmetics, formaldehyde is found in embalming fluid, medications, fabric softeners, dishwashing liquid, paints, plywood, and particle board. Irritates the throat, nose, eyes and skin.
If there are opponents of the ban on formaldehyde in hair straighteners, they have not raised their voices. Even the Personal Care Products Council, which represents hair straightener manufacturers, supports a ban on formaldehyde, spokeswoman Stefanie Harrington said in an email. More than 10 years ago, she noted, a panel of industry-paid experts considered that hair products with formaldehyde are not safe when heated.
California and Maryland will ban formaldehyde in all personal care products starting next year. And manufacturers have already reduced the use of formaldehyde in hair care products. Reports to the California Department of Public Health Safe Cosmetics Program show a tenfold drop in products containing formaldehyde from 2009 to 2022.
John Bailey, former director of the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colorants, said the federal agency often waits for industry to voluntarily remove dangerous ingredients.
Cheryl Morrow co-founder The defenders of the relaxant late last year to lobby on behalf of California Curl, a business he inherited from his father, a barber who founded the company, and other black hair-care companies and salons. “Ban it,” he said of formaldehyde, “but please don’t mix it culturally with what black people do.”
He insisted that the relaxers used by African Americans do not contain formaldehyde or other carcinogens and are safe.
A 2018 study discovered that hair products used primarily by black women and children contained a large number of dangerous ingredients. Researchers tested 18 products, from hot oil treatments to anti-frizz polishes, conditioners and straighteners. In each of the products they found at least four and up to 30 chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system.
Racist beauty standards have long forced girls and women with curly hair to straighten it. Studies show that between 84% and 95% of black women in the US have reported using relaxers.
The frequent and permanent application of chemical relaxers to the hair and scalps of black women could explain why hormone-related cancers kill more black women than white women per capita, Bertrand and other epidemiologists say. Relaxers can be so habit-forming that users call them “creamy crack.”
As a public health educator, Astrid Williams, director of programs and initiatives at the California Black Health Network, has known for years about the health risks associated with hair relaxers. However, she wore them from the age of 13 until two years ago, when she was 45.
“I felt like I had to present myself a certain way,” he said.
A formaldehyde ban won’t make creamy crack safe, he said. “It’s not even a Band-Aid. The solution is to address all chemicals that pose risks.”
KFF Health Newsformerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues and is one of the premier operating programs in KFF — the independent source for health policy research, polling and journalism.