Over the years, studies have found some chemicals in relaxers can be detrimental to user’s health. We know these products have primarily been used by Black women, putting them at risk for illnesses like cancer.
The Food and Drug Administration is proposing a rule that formaldehyde would no longer be used as an ingredient in hair relaxers because of the health risks posed for Black women. Formaldehyde is a colorless gas that’s flammable at room temperature and is often used in building materials. The chemical can also be found in household products like antiseptics, medicines and cosmetics. Being repeatedly exposed to it can have adverse effects like irritating the skin, throat, lungs, and eyes. Being exposed to the chemical repeatedly over time can lead to cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Another problem with relaxers is even when chemicals similar to formaldehyde are present, they can be converted into formaldehyde when heated. An example includes methylene glycol, often part of the formula in these products.
The proposed chemical ban may be a response to Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Shontel Brown, D-Ohio’s, open letter. They sent it in March and asked the FDA to launch an investigation to determine whether chemical hair straighteners contain carcinogens that increase the risk of developing uterine cancer.
“I applaud the FDA for being responsive to my and Congresswoman Brown’s calls to ban harmful chemicals in hair straighteners and relaxers,” Pressley said in a statement. “The public health — especially that of Black women — is at stake, which is why the Administration must finalize and implement this rule without delay.”
A recently published Boston University Black Women’s Health Study, which started in 1995, also found postmenopausal Black women who used chemical hair straighteners long term had a higher risk of developing uterine cancer.
“We know that these products are very poorly regulated by the federal government in terms of what goes in there,” said the study’s lead author, Kimberly Bertrand, an associate professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.
“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.”
For context, the FDA only requires color additives in cosmetic products to be approved before they hit the market, not the ingredients.
Many Black women are becoming more informed about the risks of hair relaxers and even taking legal action as a result. Multiple have sued major beauty brands like Revlon and L’Oréal within the past year, claiming the companies’ hair-straightening products caused them to develop uterine cancer, breast cancer and other health challenges. Some women also claim that the products have caused them infertility.