The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed banning hair straightening products that contain or emit formaldehyde (known as formaldehyde), more than a decade after cosmetic industry experts declared the products unsafe.
[No Brasil, a venda de formol é proibida pela Anvisa (Agência de Vigilância Sanitária) desde 2009, apesar de o produto ainda ser utilizado em alisantes irregulares, segundo a vigilância.]
Frequent use of chemical hair straighteners has been linked to a possible increased risk of developing uterine cancer, also known as endometrial cancer. Women who use the products often face more than double the risk of those who do not.
Other studies have linked straighteners and hair dyes to breast and ovarian cancer. The agency’s scientists considered formaldehyde a human carcinogen seven years ago, and its lawyers began drafting a proposed ban at that time.
Those who work as embalmers, who are exposed to high levels of formaldehyde, have higher rates of myeloid leukemia and other rare cancers. The FDA warns that immediate reactions may include eye and throat irritation, coughing, wheezing or chest pain. Chronic or long-term problems include frequent headaches, asthma, skin irritation and allergic reactions.
Hair straightener products are primarily marketed to black women. Although uterine cancer rates have increased among all women in recent years in the U.S., the increase has been steepest among women of color, including Asian and Hispanic women.
The agency’s proposed rule would ban the use of formaldehyde and other chemicals that release formaldehyde in hair straighteners and relaxers sold in the United States. The target date for the ban is April 2024.
Some treatments, including so-called keratin treatments, claim to be formaldehyde-free but contain a substance called methylene glycol, which converts to formaldehyde gas after coming into contact with air. (Scientists consider methylene glycol to simply be formaldehyde in solution.)
The US agency has always had the authority to ban a specific ingredient like formaldehyde, and has removed about a dozen ingredients, including mercury compounds, from cosmetics.
The expanded oversight by the FDA, however, does not mean that new products will undergo an agency review before being marketed to the public. But manufacturers of shampoos, nail polish, makeup and other items are now required to register their manufacturing locations and disclose the ingredients on the packaging.
The FDA may also issue a mandatory recall of a cosmetic product if a serious health concern arises or a death occurs.
The controversy over formaldehyde in hair straighteners has persisted for years. The Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, called on the agency in 2011 and again in 2021 to ban formaldehyde hair products.
Agency lawyers began drafting rules for a proposed ban in 2016. But the process was abruptly halted a few months later, and no explanation was given.
“The FDA has known for decades that these products are dangerous,” says Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. “There’s no reason they couldn’t have acted sooner.”
“This is the first public indication we’ve seen that they are planning to ban this in hair straighteners,” adds Benesh. The products pose a real risk of harm, she says, both to hairdressers regularly exposed to formaldehyde vapor during treatment, and to the clients who receive it.
The agency encourages consumers to read hair product labels before purchasing them and to avoid those that contain formaldehyde, formalin or methylene glycol. Additionally, it urges consumers to ask their hairdressers what products they are using and to report adverse reactions.