In the quest for sleek, straight hair, women often turn to hair straightening treatments that promise long-lasting results. However, beneath the allure of smooth locks lies a concerning truth – many of these treatments contain formaldehyde, a highly toxic chemical that is associated with certain types of cancer and other adverse health effects.
Let’s take a closer look at the hidden dangers associated with formaldehyde-based hair products.
What is Formaldehyde?
Formaldehyde is a strong-smelling chemical that takes the form of a pungent gas at room temperature. Inhaling formaldehyde at low levels can lead to irritation of the nose, throat, and eyes. According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health, prolonged inhalation of even small quantities of formaldehyde gas may result in bronchitis and pneumonia.
Exposure to higher levels of formaldehyde can cause skin rashes, shortness of breath, wheezing, and alterations in lung function. Long-term exposure has been associated with cancer, particularly in the nose and sinuses. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has declared formaldehyde “carcinogenic to humans” and has linked it to nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia.
In October 2022, another study from the National Institutes of Health revealed that women using chemical hair-straightening products faced a higher risk of uterine cancer compared to non-users. The primary chemicals in these products were identified as parabens, metals, bisphenol A, and formaldehyde.
Over the past decade, numerous independent research organizations and studies have cautioned about the potential hazards of formaldehyde in chemical hair straighteners. Now, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is planning to prohibit this harmful ingredient in hair straightening products.
Dangers of Using Formaldehyde-Based Hair Straightening Treatments
Numerous studies have indicated that various hair products, aside from hair straighteners, may pose an increased risk of cancer. According to TorHoerman Law, these products include hair relaxers, permanent hair dye, and hair rebonding products.
Here are some health risks associated with the use of such chemical-based products:
Women undergoing these treatments might inhale formaldehyde fumes, leading to irritation of the nose, throat, and lungs. Prolonged exposure or repeated use in poorly ventilated spaces could contribute to more severe respiratory issues, including coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing.
Recent research suggests a potential link between formaldehyde exposure and hormonal disruption. Many studies have proved how the use of hair straightening products might lead to an increased risk of development of hormone-related cancers and breast cancer.
According to a study by UC Berkeley, formaldehyde exposure can potentially cause reproductive issues in women by affecting their sex hormones. It has also been reported that formaldehyde may have endocrine-disrupting effects at lower doses.
Occupational exposure to formaldehyde-based products has been associated with an increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer and other types of respiratory-based medical issues.
An analysis as per the Women’s Circle of Health Study reported that women who use hair relaxing chemicals for more than a decade and have a long history of using such hair products in both salons and at home had an increased risk of developing breast tumors.
Understanding the FDA’s Potential Ban on Formaldehydes
The ban proposed by the FDA focuses on formaldehyde, a chemical present in most hair relaxer products, hair straightening treatments, and keratin-based treatments that release the chemical when heated.
It is particularly prevalent in products marketed to Black women for smoothing and straightening; even those labeled “formaldehyde-free” may contain chemicals releasing it.
Over a decade ago, Congress members urged the FDA to regulate formaldehyde in hair straightening treatments. Since 2010, the agency has cautioned consumers about potential health risks, especially in poorly ventilated salons where formaldehyde gas can accumulate.
Despite multiple efforts by environmental groups and health advocates, formaldehyde is still used by many professionals in salons, posing serious health risks to clients and hair stylists.
States like California have been trying to promote safer hair care products while requesting manufacturers to be more transparent when it comes to disclosing ingredients and formulas. Manufacturers face growing pressure to market products as “clean” or “natural.”
Simultaneously, hair straightener cancer lawsuits are increasing, with victims seeking accountability from companies selling potentially carcinogenic products despite knowledge of adverse health effects.
Many lawsuits claim that L’Oreal, Revlon, and other companies’ hair straightening products have raised the risk of uterine, endometrial, and ovarian cancers. Over 8,000 women diagnosed with these cancers after using chemical hair straighteners have filed compensation claims.
With lawsuits filed in various districts, a multidistrict litigation (MDL) has been formed, intensifying legal pressure on companies for failing to warn consumers of potential risks.
Formaldehyde remains a contentious issue in the beauty world. While the proposed ban is in its early stages, no action has been taken, leaving formaldehyde-based hair products in the market. Careful label scrutiny is crucial, but as with many personal care items, labels can be unreliable.
Prioritizing both beauty and health necessitates exploring alternative hair styling methods or choosing formaldehyde-free formulations as a consumer.