Janita “Gigi” Hayes first started using hair straightener as a child because it made her feel prettier. As she got older, Hayes, who is Black, continued to turn to them because she felt employers perceived her as more professional when her hair was straight.

Now, Hayes is one of thousands of women who blame hair straightening products for damaging her reproductive health and is among those suing their manufacturers. She said she believes long-term use of the products caused her to develop uterine fibroids, a condition that forced her to undergo a hysterectomy.

“I never realized that long term use would affect me like this … my body is changed forever,” said Hayes, 41, of Birmingham, Alabama. “I no longer have the parts that I was born with. The confidence that I had as a woman is no longer there.”

This week, the FDA said it will investigate the products, which research has connected to an increased risk of some types of cancer.

Danielle Ward Mason, Hayes’ lawyer, said the FDA’s decision to turn its attention towards the products is “a huge deal.”

“It’s about time that someone, a regulatory body, is looking at the dangers of these products,” he said.

Janita Hayes, 41, underwent a hysterectomy after developing fibroids she says were caused by use of hair straighteners.

The FDA proposed a rule that would ban formaldehyde and other formaldehyde-releasing chemicals from being used in hair-smoothing and straightening products sold in the United States. The products have been used most extensively by Black women. 

On hair treatments, the ingredients show up as formaldehyde, formalin or methylene glycol, according to the FDA, and are found in some hair relaxers and keratin treatment products.

Using the chemicals has been linked to long-term health concerns, such as increased risks of cancer, and can cause short-term risks such as breathing problems, the agency said.

Cancer concerns:FDA proposes ban on hair-straightening, smoothing products over cancer-causing chemicals

What are the FDA’s next steps on hair straightening and relaxing products?

The FDA is soliciting public comment about the proposal, but it could be months before anything is decided. The comment period typically lasts at least 60 days, though some have been as short as 10 days or as long as nine months.

If the agency issues a final rule, it is published in the Federal Register along with an explanation of regulatory requirements, the industrial impact of those requirements and any response to public comments. The regulatory requirements also are published under Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

Former FDA associate commissioner Peter Pitts said federal law grants the agency oversight of some cosmetic products.

If the administration moves forward with its proposal, Pitts said the products could be removed from shelves within days, though it could take much longer. It all depends on how aggressive the new rule is, he said.

Janita Hayes is one of thousands of plaintiffs suing companies that manufacture certain hair straightening products.

Hair straightening products linked to certain cancers

Links between hair dye and chemical straighteners and an increased risk of breast cancer were made in a 2019 study published in the International Journal of Cancer.

In 2022, the National Institutes of Health published a study that found women who used hair-straightening chemicals had a higher risk of developing uterine cancer, and that Black women may be more affected because they use the products at a higher rate.

Earlier this year, U.S. Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Shontel Brown, D-Ohio, wrote a letter to FDA Commissioner Robert Califf asking the agency to investigate the matter.

“We urge the FDA to investigate the potential health threat posed by chemical hair straightening products,” the letter said. “Consumers need to be reassured that the cosmetic products they use do not threaten their health. It is critical that the agency act quickly to address these legitimate concerns.”

Pressley called the FDA’s proposed rule a win for public health “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.”

U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts) participates in a House Financial Services Committee Hearing at the Rayburn House Office Building on May 17, 2023 in Washington, DC.

Proposal comes as some Black women ditch relaxers

Over time, some women who once felt reliant on the hair relaxers and straightening products gave them up, said Sam Ennon, 79, of San Mateo, California, in part because they can cause breakage and bald spots, and in part because society became somewhat more accepting of Black women’s natural hair.

Ennon, the founder and president of the Black-owned Beauty Supply Association, said he’s been working in the cosmetics industry for 20 years, including stints at Clairol and Worlds of Curls.

He said hair straightening tools, such as an electronic flat iron or hot combs, can achieve similar looks, though they don’t last as long as relaxers do.

After she had uterine fibroids surgically removed, Brown, the congresswoman from Ohio, said she no longer relaxes her hair and wears wigs or braids instead. 

“We are, as Black women, under a lot of pressure to wear our hair a certain way,” she said. 

Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, gets a hug from Ohio Rep. Shontel Brown.

Proposed federal legislation called the CROWN Act, versions of which have been adopted by several states, would prohibit discriminating against a person for their hair or hairstyle based on race or national origin. A federal bill, sponsored by Rep. Bonnie Coleman, D-N.J., passed in the House in 2022 but has not been reintroduced this session of Congress.

Brown was among the bill’s sponsors.

“I wear my hair in braids,” she said. “That was something important for me to put on display because of the public pressure many Black women receive to wear their hair.”

Keke Palmer, Gabrielle Union:Celebs share Black hair discrimination stories in PSA

Contributing: Emily DeLetter, Marc Ramirez, USA TODAY.