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What to Know About the Health Risks of Chemical Hair Straighteners

Over the last decade, researchers have warned about the potential dangers of chemical hair straighteners, which have been linked with an increased risk of cancer, particularly among Black women. Now, the Food and Drug Administration is planning to propose banning a harmful ingredient used in some straighteners.

“It’s about time,” said Dede K. Teteh, an assistant professor of public health at Chapman University.

The proposed rule would ban the chemical formaldehyde in hair smoothing and straightening products, and the target date for the ban is April 2024. Here’s what to know about the short- and long-term risks of formaldehyde in chemical hair straighteners.

What chemicals is the F.D.A. concerned about?

The proposed ban focuses on formaldehyde — which is found in some relaxers, blowout and keratin treatments — as well as chemicals that release formaldehyde when they’re heated . Formaldehyde is found in smoothing and straightening products disproportionately marketed to Black women, and chemicals that release it are even in some products labeled “formaldehyde-free.”According to the F.D.A., most hair smoothing or straightening products release formaldehyde.

The agency has warned consumers since 2010 about the potential health risks of formaldehyde exposure, especially in poorly ventilated salons where the gas can build up in the air.

What are the short-term health risks?

If you breathe in formaldehyde, it can aggravate asthma and cause coughing and wheezing, said Tracey Woodruff, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco who researches the health impact of harmful chemicals. The F.D.A.’s proposed rule cites the risk of breathing problems.

It can also make your nose and eyes sting, and irritate your skin. People who have been exposed to formaldehyde have also described dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting and chest pain. High levels of exposure can even cause bronchitis, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Some people are more sensitive to formaldehyde than others, Dr. Woodruff said. The F.D.A. says that anyone who experiences a reaction after using a hair smoothing product should stop using it and talk to their doctor. Consumers can also report their experience to the F.D.A.

What are the long-term health risks?

Chemical hair straighteners have been associated with an increased risk of uterine cancer, breast cancer and ovarian cancer— especially for Black women.

The longer and more frequently you use these straighteners, the greater your risk for cancer may potentially be, Dr. Teteh said.

“If you take someone to get their hair done for a wedding or prom or something, that’s very different than if they’re going every two weeks, every month, every other month,” said Traci Bethea, an assistant professor at Georgetown University who researches cancer disparities.

Researchers have not definitively identified the specific chemicals in hair straighteners that may increase the risk of cancer, said Kimberly Bertrand, an epidemiologist at Boston University’s Sloane Epidemiology Center who has studied Black women’s health. But several prominent research bodies have classified formaldehyde as a cancer-causing chemical.

Chemical straighteners have also been linked with fibroids and fertility issues, Dr. Bertrand said.

How do I know if a product contains formaldehyde?

Check the ingredient list for formaldehyde, methylene glycol or formalin, a related solution. If you are getting treated at a salon, ask whether their products contain these chemicals, and what steps they can take to minimize exposure, like improving ventilation.

If I’ve used chemical straighteners for years, should I be worried?

Studies on the cancer risk of straighteners are conducted on a population level, Dr. Bertrand stressed, which makes it impossible to determine any one person’s risk.

Cancer is complicated, and many factors contribute to someone’s risk, Dr. Teteh said. Use of hair straighteners might compound the risk of uterine cancer in a woman with a strong family history of the disease, for example.

“You’re exposed to many different things in your life course, and perms and relaxers are something you can control your exposure to,” said Jasmine McDonald, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.

To minimize your risk going forward, consider alternative hair straighteners or relaxers, or reduce how frequently you use them, said Dr. McDonald.

Dr. Bertrand added that steps such as quitting smoking, exercising and limiting alcohol can also “have a huge impact on cancer risk.”

If you work in a salon and are concerned about your risk, in addition to limiting use of these straighteners, you can use protective equipment like gloves and ask owners to ventilate the space as much as possible. Salon owners are required to test the air in salons to determine formaldehyde levels and make sure workers know what precautions are being taken to lower their exposure.

Dr. Bertrand recommended talking to your doctor if you have frequently been exposed to these products, to get a sense of your individual risk.

“The hair journey is a difficult one,” Dr. McDonald said. “But it can be a safer one.”

Source: New York Times October 17 2023

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