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The FDA misses its own deadline to propose a ban on cancer-related formaldehyde from hair relaxers

A proposal to ban formaldehyde in hair straightening products, scheduled for April, has not been released by the Food and Drug Administration, ignoring the agency’s own deadline.

The proposal came after extensive studies showed a link between some ingredients in hair softening and straightening products, mainly used by black women, and cancer.

It is unclear why the FDA has not released the proposed ban. The agency did not respond to requests for comment from NBC News.

In 2022, a decades-long study by the National Institutes of Health of more than 33,000 black women showed an increase in uterine cancer among those who regularly used hair relaxers.

Several women with uterine cancer or other serious diseases joined class action lawsuits against major beauty product manufacturers, including L’Oréal and Revlon. Thousands of women claim that the hair products’ ingredients caused them to develop uterine cancer or other serious health problems.

Revlon did not comment on this article. Revlon previously told Reuters that the company “does not believe the science supports a link between chemical hair straighteners or relaxers and cancer.”

A spokesperson for L’Oréal told NBC News on Wednesday that they do not contain formaldehyde in their products and that the company would welcome the FDA’s ban.

“Our top priority is the health and well-being of all our consumers,” the company said in a statement. “Our products are subject to rigorous scientific evaluation of their safety by experts who also ensure that we strictly comply with all regulations in every market in which we operate.”

Formaldehyde is used in many household products, including some topical medications and cosmetics, such as some nail polishes, hair gels, baby shampoos and others. Not all chemical hair straighteners contain it, but many do contain components that, once heated, can release formaldehyde. According to the National Cancer Institute, it is highly toxic and linked to certain cancers.

“About 50% of products advertised to black women contain these types of chemicals, compared to perhaps only 7% advertised to white women,” Tamarra James-Todd of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health said in a radio interview in 2020.

According to the FDA’s comments on the proposal, use of products containing formaldehyde and other formaldehyde-releasing chemicals is “linked to adverse short-term health effects, such as sensitization reactions and respiratory problems, and adverse long-term health effects term, including an increased risk of certain types of cancer.”

Last year, Democratic Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Shontel Brown of Ohio sent a joint letter to the FDA commissioner urging more regulations on hair relaxers marketed to black women.

“As a result of anti-Black hair sentiment, Black women have been unfairly subjected to scrutiny and forced to sidestep the extreme politicization of hair,” Brown and Pressley wrote. “Hence, generations of black women have adapted by straightening their hair in an effort to achieve social and economic progress.”

In an exclusive statement to NBC News, Pressley urged the FDA to finalize the ban.

“The FDA’s proposal to ban harmful chemicals in hair relaxers is a victory for public health – especially for Black women whose health has been disproportionately compromised due to systemic racism and anti-Black hair sentiment,” she said. “We have been pushing for this and the government must finalize this rule without delay.”

Melanie Benesh, the vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a consumer products advocacy group, described the field of cosmetics as the “Wild, Wild West of regulations” as the FDA has historically had more limited authority over them, “ compared to other matters under their jurisdiction, such as food and drugs,” Benesh said.

Her organization petitioned the FDA in 2011 and in 2021 to ban hair products containing formaldehyde. Because the FDA has long known about the issue, she added: “This is something they have clear authority to do. They can ban ingredients that clearly adulterate products, that clearly make that product unsafe for use.”

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