Formaldehyde, a potentially hazardous chemical commonly used in products that straighten and relax curly and kinky hair, may be banned in the future, according to a recent proposal submitted by the FDA. The proposal comes two months after a duo of African-American Congresswomen alerted the agency to the hazard posed by the chemical in hair relaxers, which are mostly used by African-American women. 

In March 2023, U.S. Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Shontel Brown (D-OH) reached out to the agency to inform it about the fact that formaldehyde is a ubiquitous ingredient in hair relaxer products. 

Classified as a “definitive human carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), formaldehyde exposure is associated with both short- and long-term health effects, Atlanta Black Star reports.

The IARC is the same research group under the umbrella of the World Health Organization that classified the active ingredient in Roundup weedkiller, glyphosate, as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Despite the well-documented health risks associated with formaldehyde, the chemical compound has not been banned by the FDA. 

After a 10-year study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute demonstrated the first epidemiologic evidence of an association between the use of hair-straightening products and uterine cancer, several hair straightener (relaxer) lawsuits have been filed, the first one of which was filed against L’Oreal in 2022. 

In addition to formaldehyde, other potentially hazardous chemicals in hair relaxers include parabens and phthalates. 

Rep. Brown stated, “On behalf of women, especially Black women across the country, I applaud the FDA’s new proposed rule banning formaldehyde and other harmful chemicals from hair straighteners… We must ensure the products American consumers buy and use are safe, and I look forward to working with my colleagues and the Administration to implement this proposed rule.”

Hair relaxer lawsuits filed at the federal level were consolidated in multidistrict litigation (MDL) in February. No hair relaxer lawsuits have gone to trial or have been settled, as the MDL is in the pre-discovery phase. 

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