F.D.A. plans to ban toxic hair straighteners — is it too little, too late?

Two mannequin heads with wigs, one straight and one curly.
Wigs of all textures are presented on the counter of Iman’s Beauty Supply in Lafayette, La., on Monday, January 25, 2024. Photo by Alena Maschke

To turn tight curls into smooth tresses is no small feat. It can involve chemical relaxers that permanently break down the internal structure of a person’s hair, others lasting only until the next wash — or an extra humid day.

But the pursuit of straight strands has come at a cost, especially for Black women, whose natural hair texture paired with discriminatory beauty standards has made them more prone to using products that will rid them of their curls, knowingly or unknowingly accepting serious health impacts in the process.

A proposed rule by the Food and Drug Administration is now taking aim at some of those products. Set for approval in April, the rule would ban hair straightening and smoothing products that contain formaldehyde or release it when heat is applied, like with a flat iron. With more and more women preferring a natural style, stylists say the ban offers too little and comes too late.

“People with baby fine hair in the Black community were getting relaxers just because that’s what you did,” said Lori Lemelle, a Lafayette hair stylist, who is Black and wears her hair in its natural tight curls. “People were doing it just because it was cultural.”

The health risks of lye-based relaxers have long been known, earning them the nickname “creamy crack” for their once-immense, addiction-like popularity despite causing skin burns and hair loss. 

While still in use, those products have fallen out of favor as their long-term health effects were understood and beauty standards, especially with regard to natural hair worn by Black women, began to change. 

Tori Branham applies a deep conditioning treatment to her clients hair at her studio in Lafayette, La., on Thursday, January 25, 2024.

But the desire for straight hair hasn’t gone away completely, and over the past two decades, new products have increasingly taken the place of sodium hydroxide, the chemical term for lye. In 2006, the Brazilian Blowout, a treatment that uses keratin to keep hair straight and smooth, hit the market. These are the products targeted by the new rule.

“A lot of the products that we use as humans have chemicals in them,” said Dr. Christopher Bunick, an associate professor at Yale University who specializes in dermatology. “And some of these chemicals are more problematic than the public realizes.”

While the amount of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, released during each keratin-based treatment may be small, Bunick said, long term exposure via repeated use, including inhalation by the stylists applying them, can have severe consequences.

In October 2022, a study by the National Institutes of Health found that women who used chemical hair-straightening products were at higher risk of developing uterine cancer than women who did not report using these products.

This is especially relevant for Black women, who are not only more likely to be diagnosed with uterine cancer, but are also more than twice as likely to die from it than other racial and ethnic groups, according to another 2022 study published in the American Medical Association’s oncology journal.

The FDA has been aware of these risks, but has been slow to act. A New York Times investigation in 2020 found that the agency has been working on a ban since at least 2016, yet the products in question remain on the market today. It wasn’t until an inquiry by two Black congresswomen, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Shontel Brown of Ohio, in March, that public efforts were made to craft a ban, which was then proposed in October.

As of now, the onus is still on stylists and their clients to read through ingredients and figure out whether a product contains formaldehyde or other chemicals that can release it. 

“We have to go the extra mile to educate ourselves,” said Virginia Goetting, a fellow stylist of Lemelle’s at Salon NV in Downtown Lafayette, who said she carries a snapshot of a list of ingredients to look out for on her phone.

Both Goetting and Lemelle said a ban might have positive effects by providing more transparency, but are skeptical of the real life impacts. 

Goetting worries that, similar to the transition from the “creamy crack” to Brazilian Blowout era, one harm might be replaced by another, as women continue to strive for perfectly straight, no-frizz hair.  “It might just be a chemical that has a little bit less research on it,” Goetting said. “We don’t know that it’s safer.”

Bunick acknowledged that new products with unknown risks might take the place of those targeted by the proposed ban, and that the FDA took a long time to address the issue of formaldehyde as a known carcinogen. But, he said, “now’s a good time to ban this and I’d argue that bans are coming on other chemicals too,” referring to a warning the agency released with regards to benzene, another carcinogen that has been found in personal care products.

Some clients, Lemelle noted, might still try to achieve board-straight results, whatever the cost, something she anticipates to spur a black market. Even though some of these products are harmful, they’re very strong and guarantee people the results they want, she said. “People will just get it from somewhere.”

Luckily, for stylists like Lemelle and their clients’ short- and long-term health, more people, especially Black women, have begun to embrace their natural hair texture, she and other stylists noted. 

Lexy Prejean braids a client’s hair at her studio in Lafayette, La., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024.

“People are just going natural,” said Lexy Prejean, a North Lafayette hair stylist who specializes in braids and silk presses, a short-term straightening treatment where the hair reverts to its natural state upon contact with water or humidity. Prejean estimates that only 5% of her business is in straightening, mainly in the winter months. In the humid and hot Louisiana summers, the style won’t last as long. “They can’t even eat crawfish,” she said, laughing.

Akram Hamid, store manager of Iman’s Beauty supply, stands in front of the store’s selection of hair extension wefts and wigs in Lafayette, La., on Monday, January 29, 2024.

Just down the road, at Iman’s Beauty Supply, store manager Akram Hamid said the store’s selection of at-home straightening products is a small fraction of what it used to be. “If you would have come two, three years ago, you would have seen all of this full of relaxers,” he said, pointing at roughly twelve feet worth of shelves, now filled largely with hair extension wefts. 

There’s less demand, Hamid said, and he doesn’t feel comfortable selling the products after hearing some of them might cause cancer. “We’re trying to minimize them,” he said. 

Tired of the expensive, arduous and health risk-laden process of ironing out natural curls, and aided by more permissive attitudes toward natural Black hair textures in the professional world, more women are turning to natural curl experts like Tori Barnham. 

Tori Branham applies a deep conditioning treatment to her clients hair at her studio in Lafayette, La., on Thursday, January 25, 2024.

The West Virginia native specializes in making curls, from tightly wound to loosely swirling, shine. Many of her clients are aware of the health risks posed by chemical straighteners and are ready to embrace their natural curls, but unsure how to care for and style them.

“They don’t really know what to do with their hair. So I’m really having to teach them how to wash their hair, how to properly take care of it,” she said. “Because for so long we’ve been taught, even the beauty schools were taught how to get rid of that curl texture by relaxing it, straightening it, we were not taught at all how to embrace the natural curl.”

For those who still feel straight hair is the way to go, she’s suggesting a chemical free route. “I’m so pro wigs,” she said. “Just do a wig.”