FDA Emails: Scientists Pushed To Ban Formaldehyde-Based Hair-Smoothing Treatments as Early as 2015

WASHINGTON – Emails obtained by the Environmental Working Group reveal that in 2015 and 2016, scientists at the Food and Drug Administration urged the agency to ban formaldehyde in popular hair-smoothing treatments, also known as “Brazilian blowouts.” Four years later, these hazardous treatments remain legal.

Today The New York Times published a report that details how the FDA scientists grew frustrated with the slow pace of regulation. The Times said:

The Food and Drug Administration has allowed Brazilian Blowout and similar products, called keratin treatments, to remain on the market despite the recommendations of its own scientists, according to internal agency emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the advocacy group Environmental Working Group and shared with The New York Times. . . . The revelations of the intended ban come at a time when public trust in the F.D.A., the agency responsible for reviewing the safety of coronavirus therapies and vaccines, has been shaken. Critics have questioned the agency’s emergency approval of Covid-19 treatments, and many Americans fear the agency is being pressured to prematurely authorize a coronavirus vaccine.

 “These emails show the glacial pace of regulating chemicals that are known to cause harm,” said EWG Legislative Attorney Melanie Benesh. “FDA scientists knew exposure to formaldehyde from these hair treatments was linked to serious health issues. They tried and failed to issue a formaldehyde ban – all the while continuing to receive reports of health harms from consumers and stylists.”

The National Toxicology Program classifies formaldehyde as a known carcinogen. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that working with formaldehyde “may increase your chances of having fertility problems or a miscarriage.”

In 2011, EWG published Flat-Out Risky, an investigation into the widespread use of cancer-causing formaldehyde in brands and salons across the country. These popular treatments smooth hair and reduce frizz by using formaldehyde as a glue that holds hair straight. Applying the product to hair releases formaldehyde gas, and heating the hair releases even more formaldehyde into the air.

Salon workers have reported that the application of these hair-straightening treatments causes difficulty breathing, eye irritation and nosebleeds. These injuries – in addition to rashes, blisters and hair loss – are associated with formaldehyde exposure.

In April 2011, EWG petitioned the FDA to investigate deceptive labeling of keratin hair-straighteners, require warning labels and consider implementing a complete ban on formaldehyde-releasing chemicals in hair-straightening products. EWG’s petition cited myriad instances of significant health impacts reported by consumers using these smoothing products dating as far back as 2009, when the treatments were banned in Brazil.

In March 2017, the FDA finally responded to the citizen petition, agreeing to review whether to ban formaldehyde but denying EWG’s request to require a warning label.  

In August, the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 2762, the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act, which bans 12 harmful chemicals, including formaldehyde, from the personal care products sold to Californians. It was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“Despite thousands of complaints and reports of the health hazards linked to formaldehyde exposure, the FDA has failed to protect consumers from this cancer-causing chemical,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at EWG. “Congress has not updated its cosmetics law since 1938. Because the federal government has failed to protect Americans, it’s now up to states, like California, to regulate these treatments and protect their residents.” 


The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.

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