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FDA plans to ban formaldehyde in products that smooth or straighten hair

Agency began work on regulation in 2016

by Cheryl Hogue, special to C&EN
October 18, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 35


A view from behind of someone getting their hair straightened.
Credit: Shutterstock
Products containing formaldehyde can aid in hair straightening.

The US Food and Drug Administration will propose a ban on formaldehyde and substances that release this carcinogen from certain hair-straightening and hair-smoothing products.

The announcement comes 7 years after FDA scientists declared the chemicals unsafe and the agency began drafting a regulation to control them. The agency’s work on a ban stopped during the Trump administration, the New York Times reported in 2020.

“There is no justifiable reason for the FDA’s delay in taking action,” Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, says in an email. The advocacy organization petitioned the FDA in 2011 and in 2021 to ban the use of formaldehyde in the products.

“The Food and Drug Administration has long been aware of the health hazards posed by formaldehyde in these popular hair smoothingproducts. Formaldehyde-free alternatives are readily available on the market and in salons,” Benesh says.

The FDA’s planned ban would target products that salon stylists apply to a client’s hair, followed by heat from a dryer— a hair-straightening treatment popularly known as a Brazilian blowout. Some products labeled “formaldehyde-free” contain methylene glycol, which converts to formaldehyde when heated, the FDA says.

The agency gave no target date for proposing its ban.

According to the FDA, formaldehyde exposure “is linked to short-term adverse health effects, such as sensitization reactions and breathing problems.” Long-term exposure is associated with certain cancers. Benesh says both salon workersand clients getting the treatments are at risk for these health problems.

A 2022 draft risk assessment from the US Environmental Protection Agency would classify formaldehyde as a human carcinogen and link exposure to nasopharyngeal cancer, sinonasal cancer, and myeloid leukemia. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine backed the EPA’s assessment earlier this year. The US chemical industry’s main lobbying group, the American Chemistry Council, is suing the EPA and the academies over their conclusions on the risks of formaldehyde.


This story was updated on Oct. 18, 2023, to correct the name of the group that is suing the US Environmental Protection Agency and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. It is the American Chemistry Council, not the American Chemical Society.



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