The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking a significant step towards protecting public health by proposing a ban on formaldehyde in hair relaxers and hair-smoothing products. This move, set for April 2024, follows concerns about the chemical’s link to cancer and other health risks, especially for women, notably Black women, who frequently use such products.
The Dangers of Formaldehyde
Formaldehyde is a colorless, pungent gas known to cause various health issues when inhaled or when it contacts the eyes or skin.
Long-term exposure to formaldehyde can lead to headaches, asthma, contact dermatitis, and, most concerning of all, an increased risk of cancer.
The FDA warns that when the chemical is present in the air at levels exceeding 0.1 ppm (parts per million), individuals may experience adverse effects, including watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat, coughing, wheezing, nausea, skin irritation, and allergic dermatitis, which manifests as an itchy rash.
The Alarming Link Between Formaldehyde and Cancer
A recent study conducted by the National Institutes of Health unveiled a heightened risk of hormone-related cancer in women who use hair products containing formaldehyde.
More Than Double The Risk
The lead author, Alexandra White, explained, “1.64% of women who never used hair straighteners would go on to develop uterine cancer by the age of 70; but for frequent users, that risk goes up to 4.05%.”
The Effect on Black Women
This discovery has raised questions about the safety of these products, particularly for Black women who are more likely to use them.
The Prevalence of Formaldehyde in Hair Products
It is essential to note that many keratin-based hair-smoothing and hair-straightening products contain formaldehyde.
Surprisingly, there are over 150 such products on the market. Even those labeled as “formaldehyde-free,” “organic,” or “natural” were found to contain formaldehyde upon testing by the New York State Department of Health.
Beyond Hair Products
Formaldehyde is not limited to hair treatments; it is used in various other industries, such as glues, resins, dyes, textiles, disinfectants, building materials, automobile parts, embalming, and laboratories.
A Call for Public Input
While the FDA’s proposal is a significant stride toward ensuring product safety, it is still in the early stages. Before implementing a formal ban, the FDA will review public comments on the proposed rule.
This ensures that all perspectives are considered before reaching a final decision.
Clearing Up Misinformation
FDA’s Chief Scientist, Namandjé Bumpus, addressed online misinformation about the proposed ban in a video statement.
She clarified that the rule aims to eliminate potentially cancer-causing formaldehyde and other formaldehyde-releasing chemicals from these products.
Bumpus said, “When we do propose this rule, it will be specifically focused on removing potentially cancer-causing formaldehyde and other formaldehyde-releasing chemicals from these products, so we can protect the health of all us consumers using them.”
Bumpus concluded the video by saying, “If finalized, this proposed rule will help to address this disparity by really setting a standard for safety in promoting safer alternatives.”
The FDA’s move aligns with the concerns raised by members of Congress. Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Shontel Brown penned an open letter urging the FDA to investigate whether chemical hair straighteners contain carcinogens linked to a higher risk of developing uterine cancer.
Critical to Act Quickly
The representatives wrote, “Consumers need to be reassured that the cosmetic products they use do not threaten their health. It is critical that the agency act quickly to address these legitimate concerns.”
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