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Hair Relaxers – Read the Label

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The FDA has proposed to ban formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals such as methylene glycol by April 2024.

Chicago, ILBlack women who have used hair relaxers for most of their lives have been “shocked” and “horrified” to discover that studies have linked formaldehyde—the chemical found in most hair relaxers—to cancer and fibroids. A recent Boston University report highlights an increased risk for Black women to develop uterine cancer after receiving a particular hair treatment, but studies suggesting that hair products containing a variety of chemicals are linked to asthma, hormone disruptions and even cancer go back to 2018.

Hair Relaxer Labels

In May 2018, Scientific American reported that  an analysis of 18 commonly used hair cosmetics such as relaxers (which chemically straighten hair), root stimulators and anti-frizz products detected 66 chemicals with potentially toxic effects. Researchers said the majority of such compounds were not mentioned on the products’ ingredient labels. Renowned dermatologist Dr. Yolanda Lenzy and co-author of the Boston report explained to Western Mass News the importance of labels. “Parabens, you want to look out for thylades. These are things that are included in many products and we want to try to decrease our exposure to these because we are at the tip of the iceberg in figuring out the extent of these chemicals,” she said. Activists have also accused companies of hiding formaldehyde in their ingredient list.


One study found that women who used formaldehyde hair straighteners at least four times a year doubled their risk of developing uterine cancer. Scientific American explains how hair relaxers depend on chemicals, namely formaldehyde, a colorless gas, and references an article published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science in 2013. Relaxers work by breaking the disulfide bonds that form between sulfur atoms found in a protein in hair strands called keratin. The more disulfide bonds in the hair, the curlier it is. Relaxers help pull those sulfur atoms away from each other, so they can’t naturally rejoin. Marc Baum, a chemist at the nonprofit Oak Crest Institute of Science in California, equates the molecular action of hair relaxers to breaking the rungs of a ladder. A hair strand is made up of long chains of keratin (the ladder’s “rails”) held together by sulfur bonds (the “rungs”) that give hair its structure and texture. Hair goes from straight to wavy to curly to kinky as more sulfur bonds form. Chemicals in the straighteners break the ladder’s sulfur rungs, causing the keratin fiber rails to collapse and curly hair falls flat.

A hairstylist will typically keep the relaxer in the hair for 10 to 15 minutes and will use a comb to smooth the hair into a straight position. The next step is to  rinse away the relaxer with hot water and add a neutralizing shampoo to stop the chemical reaction. This heat step breaks down the relaxer solution, releasing formaldehyde into the air.

Formaldehyde’s long-term effects includes asthma exacerbation, headaches and other short-term effects like nausea, dizziness and respiratory problems. More than 150 chemical hair-straightening products, such as keratin treatments or Brazilian blowouts, contain formaldehyde. Interestingly, the FDA’s proposed ban is ‘better late than never’? The agency has known about dangerous chemicals in hair relaxers for more than five years.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley said, “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. The Administration should finalize this rule without delay.” Along with  and Congresswoman Shontel Brown, Pressley wrote a letter to the FDA, asking it to review the safety of relaxers, which — in addition to formaldehyde — also have phthalates (a class of chemicals considered endocrine disruptors) and potentially carcinogenic heavy metals in them. Studies going back five years beg the question: how long have hair relaxer manufacturers known that their products contain dangerous, carcinogenic chemicals?


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I spoke to a lawyer and they said you have to actually been given diagnosis of cancer to proceed, which is ridiculous. Many of us women been using these relaxers since the 90s and like myself now have fibroid issues, complicated cycles and decrease in hormones in are 30s which is not normal. The lawsuit should include all of these things not specifically cancer


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