FDA considers ban on some Black women’s hair products that have caused years of harm

wsfurlan/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it was considering issuing a proposed rule to ban hair straighteners with formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde is a chemical and a known carcinogen which has been found to cause an increased risk of endometrial cancers when used in chemical hair straighteners, often marketed to Black women.

However, it’s not just straighteners. A plethora of products — including perms, hair relaxers, lotions and gels — geared towards Black women have been found to raise the risk of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and health risks while pregnant. Experts say this has been occurring for years.

In Western culture, straight and long hair has been considered a traditional beauty standard while textured hair with tight curls or coils has not.

“There’s a whole history of hair and hair care in the Black community, and some of it stems from issues of racism and discrimination against how women wear their hair and what’s considered a professional hairstyle in office settings, for example, or in school,” Dr. Kimberly Bertrand, an associate professor of medicine at Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine, told ABC News.

“So, there’s lots of reasons women may have used chemical hair relaxers, historically and even currently, everything stemming from the social pressures to have their hair look a certain way smooth and sleek,” she continued. “Some women find that their hair is just easier to manage when it’s relaxed and then of course there’s individual style and fads and trends, and how people want to wear their hair.”

Studies have shown that many of these products contain chemicals, such as phthalates, which are known to be endocrine disruptors, meaning they mimic, block or interfere with hormones in the body.

According to one Harvard professor, 50% of hair products advertised to Black women contain this group of chemicals while only about 7% of products advertised to white women do the same.

While exposure to phthalates has been linked to obesity, diabetes and pre-term birth, they’ve also been linked to uterine fibroids and uterine cancer.

“Some of the things that we’ve seen with permanent relaxers is the association with several different types of cancer, including breast and uterine cancer and ovarian cancer,” Dr. Jasmine McDonald, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, told ABC News.

“We’ve also seen associations with the chemicals that are present within these products associated with uterine fibroids and fertility, so a lot of hormonal driven conditions, and that’s mainly because a lot of the chemicals of concern are endocrine-disrupting chemicals,” she said.

McDonald performed a study looking at the use of these products in early childhood and its association and found it was associated with an earlier starting age for one’s period, which increases the risk for breast cancer.

Meanwhile, Bertrand is an investigator on the long-running Black Women’s Health Study, which found that Black post-menopausal women who used chemical hair relaxers for more than five years or more than five times a year had a nearly 50% increased risk of developing uterine cancer compared to Black women who never or infrequently used these relaxers.

McDonald said some of the damage can be undone if users switch their products. For example, phthalates are chemicals that are excreted very quickly so small changes can make a difference.

“The great thing about it is there’s been intervention studies that have shown that if you remove that product, and you replace it with a cleaner product, you will see a decrease in your exposures of these chemicals of concern that have been associated with these chronic conditions,” she said.

Both experts say if the FDA does decide to ban formaldehyde it would be an important first step, but that it should extend to more chemicals.

However, the agency is still very early in the regulatory process and its notice only suggests it may a consider a proposal in the future.

“The fact of the matter is it’s one chemical, and we’re exposed to a plethora of chemicals, not just formaldehyde,” said McDonald. “So, I think it’s a very important ban. But it’s just one step that isn’t exhaustive to all the other chemicals of concern.”

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.