Read the label and contact a licensed professional for assistance
Want to know a hair-raising fact? Many of today’s hair-straightening and hair-smoothing products contain formaldehyde: a substance that has been linked to cancer in laboratory tests. That’s why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working to make Americans more aware of what they put in their hair.
During the hair-straightening process, a stylist usually applies a straightening or smoothing solution to your hair and follows it with a heat-processing step—typically performed with a flat iron device that seals the solution into the strands of the hair. When the solution is heated, if it contains formaldehyde, the substance is released into the air as a gas.
While formaldehyde is a fairly common substance usually occurring in low amounts in our everyday lives, ongoing or high exposure is cause for concern. In addition to being linked to cancer—especially cancers of the nose and throat—formaldehyde can also cause less serious but still troubling reactions even in small amounts, including:
- Watery eyes.
- Burning sensations of the eyes, nose, and throat.
- Skin irritation.
To stay on the safe side of hair straightening, FDA says:
- Don’t DIY—Don’t apply hair-straightening or hair-smoothing products yourself at home: Go to a licensed hair professional in a salon. Licensed professionals are trained in the safe and effective application of all types of products, and they take precautions such as wearing gloves and safety glasses as well as making sure there is proper ventilation when applying these types of products.
- Read the ingredients—While FDA strongly discourages consumers from buying these products for home use, if you are considering purchasing a product from a store or online to apply yourself, read the required list of ingredients. If there isn’t a list, don’t buy the product. If the ingredient list contains references to formaldehyde, formalin, or methylene glycol, then it means the product contains formaldehyde or will release formaldehyde. Not all hair-straightening products contain formaldehyde, so look for one that doesn’t contain formaldehyde, formalin, or methylene glycol.
- Ask questions—Ask your licensed professional if the product used by the salon contains formaldehyde and if there is an ingredient list available that you can read. Look for references to formaldehyde, formalin, or methylene glycol. You can also request alternatives.
- Report bad reactions—If you experience a bad reaction to a hair-straightening or hair-smoothing product, immediately stop using the product and report your symptoms to your health care provider. You can also report your symptoms to FDA by contacting the Consumer Complaint Coordinator in your area or by reporting them online at MedWatch—FDA’s safety information and adverse reporting program—or call FDA toll-free at (800) 332-1088 to request a reporting form by mail.
In keeping with concerns about formaldehyde’s potential health problems, California is phasing this substance and other toxic chemicals out of salon and beauty products. According to a recently passed state law, beginning January 1, 2025, it will be illegal for a person or entity to manufacture, sell, deliver, hold, or offer for sale cosmetic products that contain formaldehyde or about a dozen other chemicals except under specified circumstances.
Licensees of the Department of Consumer Affairs’ Board of Barbering and Cosmetology are trained and educated to help you look and feel your best while maintaining health and safety standards. Contact a licensed California professional for assistance, and to check a professional’s license, visit https://search.dca.ca.gov.