A Keratin Complex pop-up salon.

The Environmental Working Group has set its sights on its next target — keratin treatments.

The organization has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration alleging that the FDA hasn’t responded adequately to health concerns surrounding salon keratin hair treatments with products that contain formaldehyde. The service is meant to straighten and de-frizz locks. The process involves liquids applied to hair and then heated with straightening tools, which EWG says releases formaldehyde gas from the liquid to go into the air. According to the EWG’s suit, high levels of formaldehyde found in certain keratin treatments can cause health problems for salon workers.

“For years, stylists have reported that the application of these hair treatments caused difficulty breathing, eye irritation and nosebleeds,” said Tina Sigurdson, EWG assistant general counsel. “The FDA has been aware of the health hazards associated with the products since at least 2008. Despite these dangers, the FDA has yet to take action to remove them from the market.”

This isn’t the first time the EWG has approached the issue — in 2011, the group filed a citizen petition for the FDA to investigate the products and potentially take action, to which it said in a statement it has not received a “final response,” adding that the FDA hasn’t “taken any significant action against makers of the products.”

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That petition asked the FDA to investigate keratin treatment labels; require manufacturers to label products in a way that discloses the amount of formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing chemicals a product contains, and review whether to ban formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals in keratin hair-straightening products. The new lawsuit asks for the court to direct the FDA to act on that earlier petition.

“We want the FDA to finally act to protect salon workers and clients from these dangerous products,” Sigurdson said. “Ideally, we’d like to see a ban, but if not, these products should be labeled, they should be labeled clearly in a way that informs consumers and salon workers of the risks.”

The FDA does have an informational web page, which highlights that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a hazard alert to hair salon workers and owners about potential formaldehyde exposure from the procedure, saying that the “FDA continues to evaluate hair products that release formaldehyde when heated.” The FDA has issued warning letters to GIB LLC, which does business as Brazilian Blowout, and to Van Tibolli Beauty Corp., which also makes keratin treatments.

The EWG is a Washington, D.C.-based group that aims to evaluate ingredients in consumer products, including beauty products. Just last week, the group released a report that it said shows that beauty products marketed to African-American women more frequently contain harmful ingredients. That study added 1,177 new products to the EWG’s Skin Deep database, which rates products for safety based on ingredient lists.

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