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The FDA moves to ban chemical hair straighteners containing formaldehyde


People use hair relaxers for many reasons - for day-to-day convenience or just really liking the way it looks. But last year, one of our guests cautioned against using hair relaxers and chemical straighteners.


ALEXANDRA WHITE: Frequent users of the hair-straightening products - they had about over double the risk of uterine cancer compared to women who did not say they'd used those products.

RASCOE: And now the Food and Drug Administration is proposing to ban hair relaxers containing a chemical called formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen. Kimberly Bertrand is an associate professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine. She joins us now for more. Welcome to the program.

KIMBERLY BERTRAND: Thank you. Happy to be here.

RASCOE: So what do we know about this proposed ban by the FDA?

BERTRAND: Yeah. So the FDA has proposed a ban specifically restricting a specific ingredient called formaldehyde that's been used in some hair relaxers and other hair products. Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen, meaning it's been classified as a cancer-causing agent. And the chemical also can have short-term effects when inhaled - irritation of the eyes, nose, skin, and throat. It can exacerbate asthma, can cause trouble breathing. So in addition to cancer, there's other concerns about this particular chemical. The interesting thing is that the FDA's focused specifically on formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing products, but that doesn't necessarily cover other potential toxic ingredients that are included or present in chemical hair relaxers.

RASCOE: What else is in there that might be deemed harmful?

BERTRAND: So it's really difficult to know, in some ways, because all of the different companies, their formulations for these products are proprietary. So you don't necessarily know the extent of everything that's in there. But off-the-shelf testing has demonstrated that these products contain things like heavy metals, which can accumulate in the body over time, and they can act both as carcinogens and have estrogen-like effects. And then the other ones that we're particularly concerned about are chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, and these are chemicals that can either mimic estrogen or have anti-estrogen properties in the body. And so for any sort of hormonally driven cancer, like uterine cancer and breast cancer and ovarian cancer, these are the chemical class that we're sort of most concerned about.

So sometimes you'll see on the label chemical - long chemical names that end in the word paraben, and sometimes you'll see other long chemical names that end in the word phthalate, or you might see an abbreviation like DEP, which stands for diethyl phthalate. The trouble is that, you know, while some manufacturers may list these ingredients, they're not actually required to list them specifically, and these chemicals may only be listed on the label as fragrance or preservatives. So it can be really hard to know what you're getting when you're, you know, picking up these products. And then when you're going to the salon, you really have no idea.

RASCOE: Is proposing a ban on using formaldehyde as an ingredient in hair relaxers enough?

BERTRAND: I think a ban on formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing products could have a really important effect on the health of users and salon workers, for example, who may breathe in these products when they're released into the air.

RASCOE: You have said that the - that a move to ban formaldehyde in hair relaxers is an environmental justice issue. What do you mean by that?

BERTRAND: These products are heavily marketed to Black women specifically. They're used by Black women orders of magnitude more than among white women, for example. At the same time, we also know that there are critical racial disparities in cancer outcomes for Black women compared to white women in this country. Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer than white women. They're more likely to die from uterine cancer than white women. And so we're dealing with this racial disparity in disease, and yet we also have this exposure that is predominantly experienced by Black women. The fact that we have this chemical exposure that hasn't been strictly regulated is potentially an important factor in these disparities.

RASCOE: Kimberly Bertrand is an associate professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine. Thank you so much for joining us.

BERTRAND: Thank you, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.