Formaldehyde, a toxic chemical used in a number of household products, may soon be banned from use in chemical hair straighteners, according to a planned proposal filed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

Currently the agency “discourages” the use of hair straightening products that contain formaldehyde or related ingredients, which studies have linked to an increased risk of certain cancers and other adverse effects and illnesses.

“When such products are heated, formaldehyde gas is released into the air,” according to the FDA. “Breathing in formaldehyde gas can be harmful and cause immediate reactions ranging from irritation of the eyes and throat to coughing, wheezing, or chest pain to chronic or long-term problems such as more frequent headaches, asthma, skin irritation, and allergic reactions, and possibly cancer.”

FDA Could Request Public Comment

The FDA filed its proposal in the Unified Agenda, which compiles various federal regulatory and deregulatory actions for different government agencies. According to the entry, the rule would ban formaldehyde and other formaldehyde-releasing ingredients such as methylene glycol as an ingredient in hair smoothing or straightening products in the U.S.

“Use of hair smoothing products containing FA [formaldehyde] and FA-releasing [formaldehyde-releasing] chemicals is linked to short-term adverse health effects, such as sensitization reactions and breathing problems, and long-term adverse health effects, including an increased risk of certain cancers,” according to the FDA.

The agency may request public comment on the ban, which will then be reviewed to determine whether or not to proceed, FDA spokesperson Courtney Rhodes told CNN recently. Based on the feedback, the FDA could move forward in three different ways: end the process, issue a new proposed rule or issue a final rule.

“If we decide to issue a final rule, we publish the final rule in the Federal Register,” according to the FDA’s website.

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Hair Straightener Lawsuits Filed

Thousands of chemical hair straightener lawsuits have been filed against hair straightener companies such as L’Oreal, Soft Sheen Carson, Strength of Nature and others. The plaintiffs claim the companies knew about the dangers but failed to warn users. Litigation is in the early stages and lawyers are still taking cases.

As of October 2023, there were 2,244 pending lawsuits in Illinois multidistrict litigation. Uterine cancer and breast cancer are the top two cancers linked to hair straighteners. Researchers found that endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, in chemical hair straighteners are to blame for an increased cancer risk. 

Lawmakers Voice Racial Disparity Concerns

A 2022 study by the National Institutes of Health found the frequent use of chemical hair straightener products doubled the risk of uterine cancer among users compared to nonusers. A large majority of chemical hair straighteners are marketed to Black women, studies show.

Earlier this year two lawmakers penned an open letter to FDA Commissioner Robert Califf asking for a “thorough and transparent” investigation into the link between chemical hair straighteners and cancer.

U.S. Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Shontel Brown cited the 2022 study in a letter to the FDA, noting, “Chemical hair straighteners and relaxers are primarily marketed to Black women to alter the appearance of hair.

“Manufacturers of chemical straighteners have gained enormous profits, but recent findings unveil potentially significant negative health consequences associated with these products,” the letter reads.