Oops They Did It Again: FDA Misses Deadline To Propose A Ban On Formaldehyde, The Chemical Often Used In Hair Relaxers

Photo of an African American hairdresser, washing hair to a customer with an Afro hair style

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) failed to meet their own deadline in April to issue a proposed ban on the use of formaldehyde, a chemical often used by Black women in their hair relaxer products.

Many believe that formaldehyde is extremely dangerous. “[A] decadeslong study by the National Institutes of Health of more than 33,000 Black women showed an increase in uterine cancer among those who regularly used hair relaxers.”

In addition, “[o]ther studies have linked hair straighteners and dyes to breast and ovarian cancer. The agency’s scientists deemed formaldehyde to be a human carcinogen seven years ago, and its lawyers started drafting a proposed ban then.”

There is also a racial component in marketing related to this dangerous chemical. As Tamarra James-Todd, with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said, “About 50% of products advertised to Black women contain these types of chemicals, compared to maybe only 7% that are advertised to white women.”

In October 2023, the agency announced their plans to ban “hair-straightening products that contain or emit formaldehyde,” setting a target date for April 2024.

This isn’t the first time the FDA has missed a deadline. In 2021, the agency missed a court-ordered deadline to take unreviewed vaping products off the market. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) sent a letter, publicly berating the FDA on the two-year anniversary of the long-overdue actions. “Despite these efforts, FDA has failed to meaningfully act.  It is unclear what—if anything—will finally prompt FDA to get its act together and take more seriously the risk of the tobacco industry addicting a new generation of kids.”

And once again, the agency missed the mark. The proposal banning the harmful chemical scheduled to occur this past month never happened. “It is unclear why the FDA has not released its proposed ban,” NBC News reports. The federal agency had previously told the news outlet, “the Unified Agenda estimates the action date for the NPRM as April 2024. We are still developing the proposed rule and cannot comment further about questions of timing or content at this time.”

But “[t]he fact that formaldehyde is still allowed in hair care products is mind-blowing to me,” stated former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program Linda Birnbaum. “I don’t know what we’re waiting for.”

Congressional Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-OH) said “The FDA’s proposal to ban harmful chemicals in hair relaxers is a win for public health — especially for the Black women whose health has been disproportionately put at risk due to systemic racism and anti-Black hair sentiment.”

“We have been pressing for this and the Administration should finalize this rule without delay,” Pressley added.

While banning formaldehyde is a critical step that would benefit public health, some scientists do not believe it goes far enough. “The elevated risk of breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers that epidemiological studies have recently associated with hair straighteners is likely due to ingredients other than formaldehyde.” James-Todd indicated that the products targeted towards Black women and hair care “contain a host of hazardous chemicals.”

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