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FDA proposes ban on hair relaxers with formaldehyde

The Food and Drug Administration is proposing a ban on using formaldehyde as an ingredient in hair relaxers, a huge step in raising awareness about the potential harms such products create for the many Black women who typically use them. 

The proposed rule would ban the chemical in hair-smoothing or hair-straightening products, also called relaxers. The FDA currently discourages consumers from using hair-straightening products that contain formaldehyde and similar ingredients, according to a fact sheet from the agency. 

The FDA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas that’s used in a wide variety of household products, including medicines and cosmetics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s highly toxic, and repeated exposure can irritate the eyes, skin, lungs and throat. It is also linked to certain cancers, including myeloid leukemia, a cancer that occurs in the blood and bone marrow, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Even products that don’t contain formaldehyde as a main ingredient may contain other ingredients that, when heated, can be converted into formaldehyde, such as methylene glycol, which is found in some hair-straightening products. Some soaps, shampoos, lotions and cleaning products contain formalin, which is formaldehyde dissolved in water.

The current law doesn’t require the FDA to approve cosmetic products and ingredients before they go on the market — only color additives, according to the agency’s website. Companies and people selling products have a legal responsibility to ensure the safety of their products, the agency says, but federal law and regulations don’t require companies to share their safety information with the FDA.

Research in recent years has helped raise awareness about the potential dangers of 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 in the previous year were more than twice as likely to develop uterine cancer compared to those who didn’t use the products. While the study didn’t collect information about specific brands or ingredients used by the participants, the researchers noted that formaldehyde, parabens and other ingredients found in chemical hair straighteners may contribute to the increased risk of uterine cancer. 

Additional research published this month by Boston University’s Black Women’s Health Study — a long-running study, launched in 1995, that tracks the health of 59,000 Black women — found that postmenopausal Black women who used chemical hair straighteners long term had a higher risk of developing uterine cancer. The study was designed to emphasize the dangers of chemical hair straighteners and help identify safer alternatives, said the study’s lead author, Kimberly Bertrand, an associate professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.

“We know that these products are very poorly regulated by the federal government in terms of what goes in there,” Bertrand said. “You can’t look at an ingredient label and know that it contains these endocrine disruptors. They don’t list phthalates and parabens on the box — they say fragrance and preservative. So women don’t really know what they’re being exposed to.”

Endocrine disruptors are often found in chemical hair straighteners and can be absorbed into the body when the product is placed on the scalp, Bertrand said. The chemicals can interfere with the body’s endocrine, or hormone, system, and they are linked to early onset of puberty, fibroid tumors and infertility, she said. 

An additional study published by the American Journal of Epidemiology in March found that current and former use of chemical hair straighteners was associated with lower fertility in women. 

Several Black women have sued Revlon, L’Oréal and other cosmetic brands within the past year, alleging that the companies’ hair-straightening products caused them to develop uterine cancer, breast cancer and other health complications. In other cases, women also claimed the products caused infertility. 

The FDA’s proposed ban comes months after Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Shontel Brown, D-Ohio, wrote an open letter in March asking the federal agency to investigate to determine whether chemical hair straighteners contain carcinogens that lead to a higher risk of developing uterine cancer. Many Black women use such hair-straightening products to adapt to societal standards as a result of anti-Black hair sentiment, the letter said. 

In addition to the FDA’s proposed ban, Pressley and other advocates have pushed for policies like the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, known as the CROWN Act, which prohibits employment and educational discrimination based on hair texture. Since the U.S. House passed the bill in March 2022, more than 20 states have followed suit, including Texas, where a Black teenager was suspended this year after school officials said his dreadlocks violated the district’s dress code.

The target date for the FDA’s proposed ban is April. 

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