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FDA Stalls Formaldehyde Hair Relaxer Ban

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The FDA has stalled its proposed ban on formaldehyde and appears to be in denial.

Santa Clara, CAWhen it comes to regulating products, hair relaxers in the U.S. are like the wild west. Despite the FDA announcing a proposed ban for April 2024 on hair straighteners containing formaldehyde (it has missed that deadline), and despite the EPA announcing that exposure to formaldehyde is an “unreasonable risk to human health”, nothing has been done to remove this known human carcinogen from the market.

And more than 10 years after the cosmetic industry itself warned of adverse health effects, the FDA did nothing. About one year after a study from the National Institutes of Health found that Black women using chemical hair straightening products were at higher risk for uterine cancer compared to women who did not report using these products, the FDA proposed to ban chemical hair relaxers containing formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals. The agency cited its link to cancer and other long-term adverse health effects and warned that “immediate reactions can include irritation of the eyes and throat, coughing, wheezing or chest pain. Chronic or long-term problems include frequent headaches, asthma, skin irritation and allergic reactions.”

After missing its own deadline, the FDA’s proposed rule is still “being developed”. An FDA spokesperson told NPR in May that the ban "continues to be a high priority," and they declined to comment further about its timing or content. Rep. Shontel Brown, D-Ohio told NPR that she and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass are in contact with the FDA and she is "confident" that they agency understands the importance of finalizing this rule. "No one should get sick because of how they wear their hair, especially when that decision is weighted by centuries of racism and sexism," Brown told NPR. "It's tragic to think about the serious negative impact that these products have had on people's lives and how it was totally preventable.”

The Charlotte Post reported in April that the chemical’s ban will start in July. “A proposed rule that would ban use of formaldehyde and other formaldehyde-releasing chemicals in hair straightening products, if finalized, would help protect public health by reducing the risk of exposure to this harmful substance,” said Courtney Rhodes, an FDA spokesperson, in an email statement. (The comment “if finalized” gives it lots of wiggle room.) Rhodes also said that, although the proposal has been entered into the Unified Agenda, the timing of a ruling is still unpredictable. “We can never predict the exact timing. Even July is an estimate,” she told the Post, which bills itself as “The Voice of the Black Community”.

To date, more than 150 hair-straightening products on store shelves that contain formaldehyde, the New York State Department of Health counted. Further, its investigators found that products claiming to be "formaldehyde-free," "organic," or even "natural" actually contained formaldehyde in them when tested.

Hair Relaxer Lawsuits after Formaldehyde Ban

According to the Legal Examiner, the formaldehyde ban will likely strengthen hair relaxer lawsuits. The hair relaxer MDL saw fewer lawsuits added recently but legal experts predict that, as consumers learn more about the risks of uterine, breast, and ovarian cancer and reproductive issues potentially caused by chemical hair straighteners, more lawsuits will be filed. “The ban may lead to quicker and even larger settlement offers to plaintiffs. It also supports the notion there are valid concerns about illnesses that may be caused by using relaxers.”

L’Oreal and other manufacturers are facing thousands of product liability lawsuits filed throughout the federal court system, although L’Oreal says it welcomes the ban because its products do not contain formaldehyde.

Public Awareness

Public awareness is increasing, particularly after The New York Times report (June 13, 2024) titled “The Disturbing Truth About Hair Relaxers”. The article exposes how underregulated the cosmetic industry is, how products used by Black women in particular are insufficiently studied, and it exposes the American government’s “lax oversight” – even the package labeling can’t be trusted. For instance, the NYT says that many of the products containing toxic substances are prohibited in other countries.

“The European Union regulates more than 1,300 ingredients for use in cosmetics; the FDA prohibits or restricts only nine ingredients that have been proved harmful to human health. In the United States, manufacturers, not the government, are nominally responsible for ensuring product safety. Chemical relaxers and other beauty products are marketed similarly in Europe and the United States, though they contain different active ingredients given Europe’s much stricter regulation. In fact, hair relaxers marketed to children in the United States have been found to contain the highest levels of five of the chemicals prohibited in the European Union.”

When Linda Villarosa, the author of the NYT article, asked an FDA spokeswoman why the endocrine-disrupting chemicals called phthalates are not banned for use in cosmetics, including hair relaxers, in the United States as they are in Europe, she was told in an email that “at the present time, the FDA does not have evidence that phthalates as used in cosmetics pose a safety risk.”

Celebrities have also weighed in. Back in 2009, Chris Rock had the foresight in his 2009 documentary “Good Hair” to expose toxic chemicals in hair products for Black women. He demonstrated an aluminum soda can submerged in a beaker of sodium hydroxide, or lye, which was back then a main ingredient in relaxers, disintegrate after four hours. And in 2022, Oprah Winfrey in the Hulu series “The Hair Tales” famously left a hair salon with a severely burned scalp after a relaxer treatment in 1977. Every time she combed or washed her hair, clumps fell out. 



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