It’s been more than 12 years since an Allure magazine reporter raised the alarm about the Brazilian blowout hair treatment, a salon product that offered frizzy hair straightening that would last two to three months. The technique worked very well if you wanted shiny, straight hair – but it also had terrible fumes that many stylists and clients complained about. The product caused headache, nausea, throat irritation, nosebleeds and other negative side effects.
Allure decided to run tests. They received samples of various types of Brazilian hair treatments from stylists, salons, and a manufacturer and sent them to an independent laboratory where they found the culprit.
“The samples we tested contained at least ten times more formaldehyde than the 0.2% that were classified as safe by the CIR (Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel),” wrote reporter Mary A. Fischer.
Incorrect representation of the ingredients
With formaldehyde concentrations of 3.4 to 22.1%, the products were often incorrectly labeled and incorrectly displayed. In 2010, the FDA took note of complaints about these products: they warned of the release of formaldehyde from the treatments and said they would investigate “to determine whether the products or ingredients would likely cause health problems under the intended conditions of use. ”
The FDA is pulling its heels
Then … not much happened. The FDA issued warning letters to California-based Brazilian blowout maker GIB LLC regarding its misleading labeling claiming the product was “formaldehyde-free.” The Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) hit two manufacturers and two dealers with health violations of their formaldehyde-containing hair products. The fines totaled just under $ 50,000. A private class action lawsuit was successful and the Brazilian blowout maker had to pay out $ 4.5 million.
However, they were not instructed to change the product, only to remove the words “formaldehyde-free” from the labels.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, has taken more determined action: it banned formaldehyde from cosmetic products in 2019.
Why formaldehyde at all?
Given that formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, why would these companies be so adamant about keeping it in their products?
“[Formaldehyde] helps bind your strand of hair with the keratin molecules that will bind, ”said chemist Christine Martey-Ochola, PhD, co-founder and CEO of Nuele Hair, an organic hair serum and natural hair products company. “That’s a critical component of the treatment, and it’s good in that regard – it’s considered a really good binder.” [Keratin is a protein found in hair, skin and nails.]
Formaldehyde has a longer shelf life and straightening out better than other hair straightening treatments, but the tradeoff is safety.
How concerned should we be?
Dr. Martey-Ochola told Medical Daily that exposure to even small amounts of formaldehyde increases the risk of cancer, especially if the person has predisposing factors.
“I understand in the world of beauty, sometimes people think, ‘In order for me to get this look, I’m ready to expose myself to X, Y and Z. “At this point, it’s a consumer choice, but I think it’s important that you understand the risks, just like with cigarettes,” she said. “Cigarette manufacturers have long known that cigarettes can cause cancer, but it took a significant legal battle to get this information out. Now consumers are informed by a warning sign from the Surgeon General. “
How do companies get away with misrepresentation of ingredients?
An aggravating factor is that the products themselves rarely contain formaldehyde directly. They contain methylene glycol and similar compounds that are derivatives of formaldehyde, or basically liquid formaldehyde.
“Methylene glycol contains two additional hydrogen atoms. When it’s exposed to air, you lose those hydrogen atoms. And then you form the actual formaldehyde molecule, ”explained Dr. Martey Ochola. “You have to expose the product to air to use it and then apply heat, which makes the problem worse. This releases formaldehyde and creates a hazard for the stylist and the consumer. So you’re using a technique to get away with it. ”
Salons often say their rooms are “well ventilated” which helps but doesn’t remove the risks.
Take them home
The Environment Working Group and others have pushed hard for the FDA to finally ban formaldehyde in hair products, but a 2018 lawsuit against the FDA went nowhere.
Regarding the FDA, a spokesperson told Medical Daily: “The FDA continues to monitor safety issues related to hair straightening products and will advise consumers of the potential risks associated with using these products. We also evaluate products on a case-by-case basis for safety and labeling. For the latest information on this topic, including the risks associated with formaldehyde, also known as formalin and methylene glycol in hair straightening products, please visit the FDA website. “The FDA says read all labels.
Dr. Martey-Ochola said it was time for the FDA to take this seriously. “I think it’s important that manufacturers are held responsible for the potential downside. The FDA needs to reassess this. “
In the meantime, consumers should be aware that a keratin treatment is “formaldehyde-free,” even if their stylist says it probably isn’t.
Jenna Glatzer (www.jennaglatzer.com) is the author of more than 30 books, including Celine Dion’s authorized biography.