Women's Health in the Unified Agenda

The Spring Unified Agenda, released earlier this summer, had a number of interesting provisions. For years, we (that's the royal we) have been focusing on women’s health, so we were attuned to the fact that at least two proposals directly address women’s health. Specifically, the talc regulation and the hair straightening rule, both of which not only affect women, but disproportionately, women of color.

Asbestos in talc has been linked to ovarian cancer. Talcum powder, found in baby powder until recently, was specifically marketed to Black, overweight and/or southern women. Less than half of women with ovarian cancer live five years beyond diagnosis. 

Use of hair straightening products led to an increase in uterine cancer. Uterine cancer, while relatively survivable, is treated by removing the entire uterus – it may not be life threatening, but it is life-altering. Further, it is rare among women under 45 years of age; the study showed an increase in pre-menopausal uterine cancer diagnoses among frequent users of hair straighteners.

The Unified Agenda includes notice of a proposed rule that would ban formaldehyde as an ingredient in hair straightening products. The proposed rule is set to publish in April 2024. Another entry is that the Agency will promulgate proposed regulations to “establish and require standardized testing methods” to detect asbestos in talc. This proposed regulation is slated to be published in December 2023.

These two efforts, together, show that FDA is taking women’s health seriously. While both of these regulatory actions are being taken well after the harm has accumulated, it is consistent with cosmetic regulation. At least in the case of straighteners, women are still using the harmful product, albeit with more knowledge of the harms. Women’s use of hair relaxers is complicated, and, at least partially, based on a racist standard of beauty.

A last note, which we hope to dive into further at a later date: women, particularly Black women, are disadvantaged in the health system. The general misogyny that allows women to suffer pain and the structural racism that is responsible for the harm or death of millions of postpartum Black women are topics that have been well-discussed, but not yet solved.