5 Things to Know About the Proposed Formaldehyde Ban

Beauty Launchpad breaks down what you need to know about the FDA's proposed formaldehyde ban as it relates to hair smoothing products.
Beauty Launchpad breaks down what you need to know about the FDA's proposed formaldehyde ban as it relates to hair smoothing products.
Image from Tania via Adobe Stock

When it comes to hair, we all want what we don't have. Those with straight hair want curls and vice versa, but that path to get there may often be paved with hair damage and, in the case of chemical straightening, serious health consequences.

In Spring 2023, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed a ban on hair smoothing and hair straightening products containing formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing chemicals. The goal set for the ban to be put into effect is April 2024. That's right, we are nearing the end of April 2024 and have not yet seen anything. However, as you prepare yourself for this legislation or want to educate yourself on it more, see the below highlights.

1. The ban affects smoothing products and treatments, not relaxers.

Although many news outlets interchange straightening and smoothing products with relaxers, this is misleading. It is not relaxers that are in question here. When it comes to chemical hair straightening, hair smoothing treatments and hair relaxers use different chemistry.

We went to Crystal Porter from Mane Insights to explain: "Chemical hair straighteners can encompass two different types of chemistries: Hair smoothers which typically require thiol-based reactions in combination with formaldehyde, and hair relaxers that traditionally straighten hair using hydroxide-based technologies. News outlets have singled out 'hair relaxers' instead of using the term 'hair straighteners.' Relaxers, as defined above, work effectively without the use of formaldehyde. And, to my knowledge, that ingredient was not and is not commonly used within relaxer formulations."

Therefore, it is the smoothing/straightening products/services under scrutiny here, not relaxers.

2. The health risks are two-fold.

There are two main considerations for health behind the FDA's proposed ban. The first is short-term health consequences and the second is long-term health consequences. Using heat styling tools after applying chemical straightening solutions can release formaldehyde gas into the air. 

In the short-term, formaldehyde chemicals can cause skin sensitization. It can also irritate the lungs, eyes and nose when released into the air. As hair professionals, this is something to take note of. However, the long-term effects are much more costly.

"The greater the exposure, in terms of both duration and concentration, to products that contain formaldehyde-related ingredients, the higher the potential health risks. Possible reactions that have been reported include eye problems or irritation, nervous system problems (for example, headaches and dizziness), respiratory tract problems (sore or scratchy throat, cough and wheezing), nausea, chest pain, vomiting and rash," explains Porter.

The FDA also adds that exposure to these chemicals could possibly lead to certain types of cancer.

3. This is a long time coming. 

For those who may have not been following these ingredients in hair smoothing products, this legislation is a long time coming. In 2011, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) filed a formal request to the FDA to investigate formaldehyde-releasing hair smoothing products. It claimed the FDA knew of their dangers since 2008 and that many stylists had complained of adverse effects. Indeed, The Professional Beauty Association (PBA) published an advisory to the industry on formaldehyde in straightening products in 2008.

In 2011, the FDA joined OSHA, ICMAD and the PCPC to conduct a Cosmetic Ingredient Review of the ingredient in smoothing products. The review found the ingredient and its related ingredients safe up to 0.2% in formulations and did not make determinations as to the aerosolization of the chemical. Nothing at that time was banned. In 2016, the EWG and Women's Voices For the Earth sued the FDA, claiming the agency did not protect the public from these products. 

In March 2021, the FDA warned consumers that hair smoothing products containing formaldehyde or ingredients that released formaldehyde upon heating could be harmful to consumers and professionals. This, of course, has lead us to where we are now.

4. Labels don't always say 'formaldehyde.'

The first thing you can do as a professional or as a consumer is to check your labels. While the label may say formaldehyde, it may also say formalin (formaldehyde with water) or methylene glycol. If the product you are purchasing does not have a clear label, do not buy and use it.

Do not be afraid to ask the manufacturer questions about whether they formulate with formaldehyde in their straightening products or those products release formaldehyde with heat. The manufacturer should be willing to provide documentation such as a safety data sheet upon request. Porter adds, "Since regulatory agencies are trusting companies to do the right thing but there is no requirement to prove compliancy, there is no way of really knowing if products are made with formaldehyde or not." She recommends seeking reputable companies that have a history of compliance, furthering, "It is best to use a trusted brand which doesn’t have a history of incompliancy and to ask manufacturers to provide data to prove they have done their due diligence in having safety testing on all finished products."

5. There are options.

Smooth, straight hair doesn't have to come with danger. Clients can opt for hydroxide-based relaxers. They can also seek some of the hair smoothing treatments without formaldehyde, though the results may not be the same. Just make sure to double-check the ingredient listing of all formaldehyde-free straighteners to ensure they indeed do not contain these ingredients.

Of course, those performing these straightening treatments should use proper PPE to protect themselves, their clients and others in the salon. This includes making sure that the salon is properly ventilated, even though formaldehyde releasing chemicals are not used. In addition, if you or client does experience an adverse reaction to a chemical straightening treatment, it is best to report it to the FDA

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