FDA’s proposed ban on formaldehyde in hair relaxers and its impact on Black women

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed a groundbreaking ban on the inclusion of formaldehyde in hair relaxers. This move signifies a pivotal moment in acknowledging the potential hazards of such products, which have historically been a staple for many Black women.

Formaldehyde, a highly toxic, colorless, and flammable gas, is used in a myriad of household products, from cosmetics to medicines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warn of the dangers of repeated exposure to formaldehyde which can lead to irritation of the eyes, skin, lungs, and throat. Moreover, it is tied to certain cancers, most notably myeloid leukemia, a malignancy affecting the blood and bone marrow, as per the National Cancer Institute.

Although the FDA has previously advised against using hair-straightening products that contain formaldehyde and related ingredients, the newly proposed rule aims to solidify that stance. It is concerning that even products without formaldehyde as a primary component may still have ingredients which, under heat, convert into the dangerous chemical. An example is methylene glycol, which is present in some hair-straightening products.

Furthermore, the FDA’s jurisdiction over cosmetic products is somewhat limited. The agency is not mandated to approve cosmetic products and ingredients prior to their introduction to the market, only color additives. Hence, companies hold the primary responsibility to ensure the safety of their products, but are not required by law to disclose this safety information to the FDA.

Recent research has illuminated the perils of chemical hair relaxers. An alarming study from the National Institutes of Health unveiled that women using hair-straightening chemicals more than four times within a year had a significantly elevated risk of uterine cancer. Additionally, Boston University’s Black Women’s Health Study, which tracks the health of 59,000 Black women since its inception in 1995, discovered that postmenopausal Black women who used chemical hair straighteners long term also had an increased risk of uterine cancer. As Kimberly Bertrand, an associate professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and the study’s lead author, according to NBC BLK stated, “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, prevalent in chemical hair straighteners, are a cause for grave concern. Bertrand highlights that when applied to the scalp, these chemicals can seep into the body, potentially disrupting the endocrine, or hormone, system. This can result in early puberty, fibroid tumors, and infertility.

A subsequent study by the American Journal of Epidemiology revealed that the use of chemical hair straighteners could lead to decreased fertility in women. Moreover, several Black women have taken legal action against big cosmetic brands, including Revlon and L’Oréal, asserting that their hair-straightening products induced uterine cancer, breast cancer, and other health complications. Some even attributed their infertility to these products.

Black women, for years, have turned to such hair-straightening products to conform to societal norms stemming from anti-Black hair sentiments. The FDA’s proposed ban comes in the wake of an open letter penned in March by Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Shontel Brown, D-Ohio, urging the federal agency to determine whether these hair products contain carcinogens leading to a heightened risk of uterine cancer.

But the fight doesn’t stop with the FDA’s proposal. Policies like the CROWN Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, are being advanced to tackle hair discrimination in workplaces and educational institutions. Since its passage by the U.S. House in March 2022, over 20 states have adopted similar legislation, championing the rights of Black individuals and their natural hair.

The FDA aims to finalize the ban by April. As we progress, it is paramount that the challenges faced by Black women, both presently and historically, remain at the forefront of such discussions, ensuring a safer and more inclusive future for all.

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