Future salon trips could be safer for those who chemically straighten their hair, thanks to a new FDA proposal. (Credit: Nenad Stojkovic, Flickr)

Hair care is about to get healthier, especially for Black women.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently proposed a ban on the use of formaldehyde – a substance most often used in embalming fluid – and similarly harsh chemicals in the making of hair-straightening products. The new rule would, if approved, make haircare safer for millions, as products containing such ingredients have been linked to both short-term problems and more significant adverse effects.

The proposal was introduced in the wake of a March 2023 letter from Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rep. Shontel Brown of Ohio that called for “a thorough and transparent investigation to determine whether publicly available chemical hair straightening products … [could] lead to a higher risk of uterine cancer.”

Science backs this concern. A new study from researchers at Boston University shows that regular use of such products, indeed, increases the risk of cancer by as much as 50%.

It’s an especially pressing matter in light of still-rampant workplace discrimination against Black women’s hair. According to a recent study, Black women are 2.5 times more likely to have their hairstyles perceived as unprofessional – leaving them to choose between using harsh products to chemically straighten their hair, or risk being professionally ostracized.

Pressley and Brown are well aware. “As a result of anti-Black hair sentiment, Black women have been unfairly subjected to scrutiny and forced to navigate the extreme politicization of hair,” they wrote in their letter to the FDA earlier this year. “Hence, generations of Black women have adapted … [and] manufacturers of chemical straighteners have gained enormous profits.”

“But,” they added, “recent findings unveil potentially significant negative health consequences associated with these products.”

Indeed – which is why Pressley called the FDA’s new suggestion “a win for public health” in a press release – “especially the health of Black women who are disproportionately put at risk by these products as a result of systemic racism and anti-Black hair sentiment.” 

Brown added: “We must ensure the products American consumers buy and use are safe.”