The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced the intention to introduce an amendment to the rulebook that would prohibit hair straightening products (also called chemical relaxers) since their use is associated with risk to health, including hormone-related cancers, such as uterine cancer and breast cancer.
This new rule will prohibit products for hair smoothing using formaldehyde (FA) and other chemicals that release FA (such as Methylene glycol) as an ingredient. If the FDA approves the rule proposed, the FDA will solicit public comments, and, following a review, the agency will decide whether to take further action in accordance with FDA rules.
How Is Formaldehyde Released in Hair Straightening?
Then, the smoothing solution is applied to the hair, and then a heat processing procedure, usually with an iron device, flattens the solution into small pieces of hair. If it is heated, formaldehyde gas, which is classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a human carcinogen, gets released.
Risk of Uterine Cancer Doubled for Women Who Used Hair Straightening Products
The evidence of a higher chance of developing certain types of cancer comes from the findings of a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) study released in November 2022 by the journal of the National Cancer Institute. Researchers discovered that women who regularly used hair straightening products (more than four times over the preceding year) were twice more likely to get cancer of the uterus than women who didn’t utilize the products.
While the double risk was alarming, the authors pointed out that uterine cancer was still relatively uncommon. According to their findings, it is estimated that 1.64 percent of women who had not had hair straighteners used went on for uterine cancer at the age of 70. This is in contrast to 4.05 percent of regular users.
The study also looked into other hair treatments like hair dye highlights, bleach, highlights, and perms and did not find any increased risk of developing cancer.
Formaldehyde has been long considered an obstructing factor for human carcinogens, based on evidence from animal and occupational studies, according to Alexandra White, PhD coauthor of the study, and director of the NIEHS Environment and Cancer Epidemiology group at Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.
The research conducted by NIEHS, which is an affiliate of the National Institutes of Health, is frequently used by regulatory agencies like the FDA to establish standards and guidelines to safeguard the public’s safety and health, as per Dr. White. “Scientists at the NIEHS will continue to study potential health effects of regular use of hair products.”
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Black Women Are Disproportionately Impacted by Straightening Product Risks
In March, Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, along with Ohio Congresswoman Shontel Brown, sent a letter requesting an inquiry by the FDA regarding the health risks that are posed by hair straighteners. Since these products are mostly targeted at and utilized by Black women, They wrote that “the higher risk is disproportionally affecting Black women and is a contributing factor to the racial disparities in health across the country. The FDA is required to examine the most recent research and evaluate the quality of these products.” the officials have written.
Researchers from the NIEHS study discovered that around three-quarters of the participants who used straighteners often self-identified themselves as Black women.
“Because Black women use hair-straightening or relaxer products more frequently and tend to initiate use at earlier ages than other races and ethnicities, these findings may be even more relevant for them,” said Che-Jung Chang, Ph.D. coauthor of the study as well as a research fellow at the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch, in a press announcement.
“On behalf of women, especially Black women across the country, I applaud the FDA’s new proposed rule banning formaldehyde and other harmful chemicals from hair straighteners,” Rep. Brown said in a press announcement. “We must ensure the products American consumers buy and use are safe, and I look forward to working with my colleagues and the administration to implement this proposed rule.”
Though Still Rare, Uterine Cancer Rates Are Rising in the U.S.
Uterine cancer is a condition that occurs as cancerous (cancer) cells grow within those tissues that line the endometrium, which is the line of the uterus. It is responsible for 3.4 percent of cases of cancer that develop, according to the National Cancer Institute. Still, it’s also the most prevalent cancer that affects the reproductive organs of females, with 66,200 new cases estimated in 2023.
In contrast to the death and incidence rates of most cancers, the rate of uterine cancer is increasing. The number of cases has risen by 0.6 percent annually between 2010 and 2019, and mortality rates have increased by 1.7 percent annually over the same period.