Government Issues Health Hazard for Hair Straighteners

Are hair straightening products putting your health in danger?  The Brazilian Blowout may look beautiful, but it may also mean risking your health. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued a health hazard alert to salons nationwide about the risks that popular hair straightening products, including the well-known Brazilian Blowout, pose to salon workers and customers. The agency warned that formaldehyde – a common ingredient in many of the treatments – can cause nose and lung irritation and increases the risk of cancer.

Following several state investigations and international actions to restrict or ban these products, the agency, a branch of the U.S. Department of Labor, began a nationwide investigation of complaints by salon owners and workers of symptoms associated with the use of chemical straightening procedures, often described as keratin-based or “Brazilian.”

Environmental Working Group’s own investigation of chemical hair straightening treatments, the largest published to date, turned up numerous complaints of hair loss, blisters, burning eyes, noses and throats, headaches and vomiting in women who had been given or had applied Brazilian-style straightening treatments.

EWG’s investigation found that many top salons nationwide offer the treatments despite acknowledging concerns over possible health consequences.  Some manufacturers have played a common cosmetics-industry name game by touting formulations that were claimed to be formaldehyde-free, claiming that they relied instead on methylene glycol as a miracle alternative.

EWG’s researchers, as well as scientists at the American Chemistry Council and the Personal Care Products Council, have pointed out that methylene glycol is simply formaldehyde mixed with water. EWG believes that formaldehyde-based products should be taken off the market.

EWG’s investigation includes:

  • Unpublished FDA documents obtained by EWG showing dozens of reports of injuries and adverse effects for salon workers and clients.
  • A survey of top salons nationwide showing widespread use of formaldehyde-based hair straighteners.
  • Scientific review for all hair straighteners on the market with EWG’s tips of safest options.
  • First-ever database of more than 100 hair straightening products, including active ingredients and marketing claims.

“Deceptive marketing of formaldehyde-laced hair smoothing products is deplorable,” said EWG senior scientist David Andrews. “Chemicals known to cause cancer shouldn’t be hidden ingredients in any products that people inhale or apply to their skin.”

“While not as common as a haircut, these straightening procedures happen in salons across the country each day, exposing workers and customers to unnecessary levels of formaldehyde that could put them at increased risk of adverse health effects including cancer later in life,” added Andrews.

“Canada pulled Brazilian Blowout off the market six months ago, and our federal agencies are just now getting around to warning people of the health risks,” said Stacy Malkan, who helped found the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics with Environmental Working Group and other organizations. “It’s clear that we need a better safety system, where products are assessed for safety before they cause harm.”

Six countries have recalled straighteners based on formaldehyde, but these products are still completely legal in the United States.

Environmental Working Group is petitioning the federal Food and Drug Administration to regulate the use of formaldehyde in hair straighteners and require these products to include warning labels.

Some popular manufacturers are reformulating as news of formaldehyde in their products spreads.

In California the superior court has proposed preliminary injunction against GIB LLC, the makers of Brazilian Blowout, citing that the formula for the straightening treatment contains formaldehyde and the company should inform its salon partners of this information.  On May 2, Judge Steven A. Brick will preside of the hearing to decide whether the preliminary injunction with be signed, rejected or modified.  The preliminary injunction states that the Brazilian Blowout's “Smoothing Solution contains approximately 8 percent formaldehyde by weight, which is in the range typical of embalming fluid used by funeral homes.”   The state’s testing by independent laboratories was necessary, the preliminary injunction stated, “because of [Brazilian Blowout’s] fervent [and ongoing] denials that its products contain high levels of formaldehyde.”

“Workers have the right to know the risks associated with the chemicals with which they work, and how to protect themselves,” stated OSHA assistant secretary Dr. David Michaels in a statement.

EWG is urging anyone wanting straighter hair to consider the chemical-free method – a manual blowout with a blow dryer and hot iron.

How the beauty industry is facing the problem:

Now that the issue with hair straightening products is apparent, the beauty industry is taking steps to establish regulations and standards.  Four of the top companies in the professional beauty industry have joined forces to form the Professional Keratin Smoothing Council.  Cadiveu, Keratin Complex, Marcia Teixeira and Salontech have each made a $10,000 investment to establish a council that will advocate for the most significant category to impact professional beauty in decades: keratin smoothing.

The Council's objectives will include standardization of testing, full disclosure of ingredients, legal advocacy, education, and disseminating information.  With a large amount of misinformation about hair straightening products circulating among professionals and consumers, establishing standards could also help spur the distribution of more accurate information.  


Image:  Juli Balia/Getty Images

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