Feb 20, 2024

Understanding the Health Risks Behind Formaldehyde in Chemical Hair Straighteners

Understanding the Health Risks Behind Formaldehyde in Chemical Hair Straighteners - Formaldehyde

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is planning to present a proposed rule to ban a harmful ingredient found in most chemical hair straightening products. Since 2010, the FDA has warned consumers about the potential health risks associated with the exposure to a gas found in many chemical hair straightening products. Many of these hair products have been linked with an increased risk of cancer, particularly among Black women.


What Are the Risks of Formaldehyde Exposure?

The FDA’s proposal targets the chemical formaldehyde. The National Cancer Institute defines formaldehyde as a colorless, strong-smelling, flammable chemical gas and is classified as a human carcinogen by the World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. In hair products, formaldehyde is typically found in water-based solutions, and over time, with exposure to heat, the products using the chemical can release formaldehyde vapor gas. 


Long-Term Risk Exposure

Long-term exposure to chemical hair straighteners has been associated with an increased risk of uterine, breast, and ovarian cancer, especially for Black women. Kimberly Bertrand, an epidemiologist at Boston University’s Sloane Epidemiology Center who has studied Black women’s health, noted their study suggested that moderate and heavy use of chemical hair relaxers may be associated with a higher risk of uterine cancer among postmenopausal Black women.

The research is also backed by a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health in 2022, which found women who frequently use hair straightening products increased their risk of developing uterine cancer by 4.05%. Approximately 60% of the participants who reported using straighteners in the study self-identified Black women. While the study did not find that race played a critical role in the physical effect of the user, due to smoothing and straightening products being disproportionately marketed toward Black women, the adverse health effects may be more significant due to the higher prevalence of use.

The study also shows that long-term use of chemical straighteners has been linked with fibroids and fertility issues. The FDA claims that while some people are more sensitive to formaldehyde than others, it is vital for anyone who experiences a reaction after using a hair-smoothing product to immediately stop all use of the product and speak to their doctor. Consumers may also report their experience to the FDA here


Which Chemical Hair Straightening Products Contain Formaldehyde?

When understanding which products on the shelf may contain the harmful chemical, it is vital for consumers to know what they need to look for when actively avoiding exposure to formaldehyde. Customers can scan the ingredient labels on the backs of chemical hair straightening products to determine if they are safe to use. Depending on the product, formaldehyde in this solution may be referred to as “formalin” or “methylene glycol” and, in some cases, may contain alcohol as a stabilizer. Other names for formaldehyde include:

  • Formic aldehyde
  • Methanal
  • Methyl aldehyde
  • Methylene oxide

According to the American Cancer Society, certain chemicals used as preservatives can release formaldehyde, such as:

  • Benzylhemiformal
  • 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol
  • 5-bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane
  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • 1,3-dimethylol-5,5-dimethylhydantoin (or DMDM hydantoin)
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
  • Quaternium-15

As required by OSHA’s Formaldehyde standard, 29 CFR 1910.1048(m)(3), if a product contains 0.1% or more formaldehyde or can release formaldehyde into the air above 0.1 ppm, the product label must include the following information:

  • A statement that the product contains formaldehyde
  • Name and address of the manufacturer, importer, or other company responsible for the product
  • Statement that the employer and or the Material Safety Data Sheets can provide health hazard information

If the product can release formaldehyde into the air above 0.5 ppm, the label must also have the following information:

  • List of all product health and safety hazards
  • The phrase “Potential Cancer Hazard.”

OSHA’s Formaldehyde standard, 29 CFR 1910.1048(m)(4), and OSHA’s Hazard Communication standard, 29 CFR 1910.1200(g), require products that contain formaldehyde must also include specific information on the material safety data sheet, including the percentage of formaldehyde, exposure limits, how to store and use the product safely, and more

As listed by the New York State Department of Health, the following products were tested by Oregon OSHA and found to contain levels of formaldehyde. 

  • Brazilian Blowout Solution
  • Brazilian Blowout Acai Professional Smoothing Solution
  • Brazilian Gloss Keratin Smoothing Gloss
  • Cadiveu Brazilian Thermal Reconstruction
  • Coppola Keratin Complex Smoothing Therapy, Natural Keratin Smoothing Treatment
  • Coppola Keratin Complex Smoothing Therapy, Natural Keratin Smoothing Treatment, Light Wave
  • Coppola Keratin Express Brazilian Smoothing Treatment
  • Coppola Keratin Complex Smoothing Therapy
  • Global Keratin Functional Keratin Hair Taming System Light Wave Chocolate
  • Global Keratin Taming System Strawberry
  • Global Keratin Taming System with Juvexin Strawberry Resistant
  • Global Keratin Taming System with Juvexin Strawberry Light Wave


What Are My Options?

Of course, the conversation is more nuanced when it comes to changing your hair care routine; however, when it comes to your health and safety, it is highly recommended individuals who use chemical straighteners for their hair find an alternative method or product or stop the practice altogether. As previously mentioned, some of the first steps consumers can take include taking a closer look at what products they are grabbing off the shelf or asking salons what products they use. 

As recommended by the FDA, customers may also want to ask their salon professionals the following questions to ensure their safety:

  • Does the salon have proper ventilation? 
  • Can I review the Safety Data Sheet for this product?  
  • Have you been trained to apply this product, and do you know the necessary safeguards to minimize exposure to formaldehyde? 
  • May I see your training certificate from the manufacturer and the directions for product use? 
  • Do you periodically test the air for adherence to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s limits for formaldehyde? 
  • Do you have an alternative hair-smoothing product that does not release formaldehyde when heated?

The FDA hopes to achieve its goal for the ban of the chemical in chemical hair straightening products by April 2024. For now, those who have used chemical hair straightening products and have experienced any of the previously mentioned symptoms or who have been diagnosed with uterine cancer can speak to an attorney to learn more about what legal options they may have available to them. For more information, we highly encourage you to contact a Morgan & Morgan attorney today.