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FDA plans to propose ban on hair-straightening chemical products linked to health risks

Oct 14, 2023, 7:00 AM

The US Food and Drug Administration is proposing to ban certain hair-straightening products, such a...

The US Food and Drug Administration is proposing to ban certain hair-straightening products, such as chemical relaxers and pressing products, that have been linked to health risks. (Adobe Stock)

(Adobe Stock)

(CNN) — The US Food and Drug Administration is planning to propose a ban on certain hair-straightening products, such as chemical relaxers and pressing products, that have been linked to health risks, according to an entry in the Unified Agenda, which lists actions that administrative agencies plan to issue.

The agency plans a proposed rule that would specifically ban hair-straightening products that contain formaldehyde and other formaldehyde-releasing chemicals like methylene or glycol.

If such a proposed rule is issued, the FDA will receive public comments on it, and after reviewing those comments, the agency will decide whether further action is needed, spokesperson Courtney Rhodes said Friday.

“Based on the comments, we might decide to end the rulemaking process, to issue a new proposed rule, or to issue a final rule. If we decide to issue a final rule, we publish the final rule in the Federal Register,” the FDA says on its website.

Scientists have long identified an association between the use of hair-straightening chemical products with an increased risk of certain hormone-related cancers, including ovarian and breast cancers, and uterine cancer, particularly among Black and Latina women. Research suggests that about 50% of products advertised to Black women contain these types of chemicals, compared with about 7% that are advertised to White women, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The FDA is expected to propose language noting that these types of hair-straightening chemical products are also “linked to short-term adverse health effects, such as sensitization reactions and breathing problems” and that “these chemicals are used in certain cosmetic products that are applied to human hair as part of a combination of chemical and heating tool treatment intended to smooth or straighten the hair.”

In March, two lawmakers – Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Massachusetts, and Shontel Brown, D-Ohio – wrote a letter to FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf urging the agency to conduct a “thorough and transparent investigation” to determine whether hair-straightening chemical products on the market contain carcinogens that lead to an increased risk of uterine cancer.

Both Pressley and Brown have applauded the FDA’s action and called for the agency to implement such a ban.

“The FDA’s proposal to ban these harmful chemicals in hair straighteners and relaxers is a win for public health – especially the health of Black women who are disproportionately put at risk by these products as a result of systemic racism and anti-Black hair sentiment,” Pressley said in a news release.

“Regardless of how we wear our hair, we should be allowed to show up in the world without putting our health at risk. I applaud the FDA for being responsive to our calls and advancing a rule that will help prevent manufacturers from making a profit at the expense of our health,” she said. “The Administration should finalize this rule without delay.”

A study published last year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found evidence of an association between the use of straightening products and uterine cancer. Among nearly 34,000 women in the United States ages 35 to 74, the study found a higher incident uterine cancer rate for those who reported using hair-straightening chemical products in the previous 12 months relative to those who did not.

The study found that among women who frequently used hair-straightening chemical products, the risk of developing uterine cancer by age 70 was around 4%. In women who did not use hair-straightening chemical products in the previous 12 months, the study found the risk of developing uterine cancer by age 70 to be about 1.6%.

One woman in Missouri claimed in a lawsuit against L’Oreal and other entities that her uterine cancer was caused by regular and prolonged exposure to chemicals found in the companies’ hair-straightening products. The suit was filed last year in Illinois on behalf of Missouri resident Jenny Mitchell, who was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2018 and underwent a full hysterectomy.

“Our highest priority is the health, wellness and safety of all our consumers,” L’Oreal said in a statement after the filing. “We are confident in the safety of our products and believe the recent lawsuits filed against us have no legal merit. L’Oréal upholds the highest standards of safety for all its products. Our products are subject to a rigorous scientific evaluation of their safety by experts who also ensure that we follow strictly all regulations in every market in which we operate.”

CNN has reached out to L’Oreal for comment on the FDA’s plans.

Mitchell said last year that she recalls getting hair relaxers around third grade, when she was about 8 years old. She continued using chemical hair-straightening products from around 2000 until March 2022.

“As most young African-American girls, chemical relaxers, chemical straighteners were introduced to us at a young age,” she said. “Society has made it a norm to look a certain way, in order to feel a certain way. And I am the first voice of many voices to come that will stand, stand up to these companies, and say, ‘No more.’”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the status of the FDA’s proposal.

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FDA plans to propose ban on hair-straightening chemical products linked to health risks