Black salon owner weighs in on proposed formaldehyde ban in hair-smoothing products

A chemical found in many hair-smoothing and straightening products could soon be banned by the FDA. Formaldehyde has been under scrutiny after studies have shown a link to an increased risk of certain cancers.

Just last year, the National Institutes of Health released a startling new study that women who frequently use chemical hair straighteners may face a higher risk of developing uterine cancer. Jacqueline Pursell, who owns Luxury Hair Group in Coral Springs, said she’s concerned as a consumer and business owner.

“As a woman of color, I have been relaxing my hair and, as well, as my clients for decades,” Pursell told NBC6. “I’ve been doing hair for more than 20 years, so to just be hit with this revelation, it’s a lot to swallow.”

Now, the FDA is considering taking action against formaldehyde. 

“When we do propose this rule, it will be specifically focused on removing this potentially-cancer causing formaldehyde and other formaldehyde-releasing chemicals from these products,” said FDA chief scientist, Namandjé Bumpus.

Last year’s study didn’t look at specific ingredients, but researchers say chemicals like formaldehyde could play a role. It is a colorless, flammable gas that can be found in medicines and cosmetics, according to the CDC. It’s also known to cause respiratory problems and is linked to an increased risk of certain other cancers.

“If this chemical is harmful, there has to be an alternative,” Pursell said. “These companies, this is a multi-billion-dollar industry, so I feel like formaldehyde cannot be the only chemical they use.”

Despite a growing movement toward more natural hairstyles, many Black women say they still face discrimination to wear their hair like that. Pursell says she’s almost in a panic to find alternatives for her clients and herself. She believes the multi-billion cosmetic industry has an obligation.

“You have to constantly upgrade and make improvements and move with the times, and now is the time apparently to get the formaldehyde out of these products,” she said to NBC6.

A decision by the FDA could be reached as soon as April. Currently, thousands of Black women, whom the products are marketed toward, have sued L’Oréal, Revlon, and other companies alleging the hair products are responsible for their cancer or infertility.

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