Is the Brazilian Blowout hazardous to your health?
That question has been buzzing through beauty parlors since September, when a chance discussion in an Oregon salon made investigators suspicious of the popular hair-straightening treatment. Laboratory tests revealed the straightening solution contained dangerously high levels of the chemical formaldehyde, which can cause respiratory problems, skin reactions, headaches and more.
This month, California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown filed a civil lawsuit against GIB maker of the Brazilian Blowout treatment. The suit contends the company failed to warn its employees and customers that the straightening product contains high levels of formaldehyde. The suit also accuses the company of false advertising by claiming that some versions of the product are "formaldehyde-free" and "salon safe." GIB says that any formaldehyde in its products is low enough to warrant such labeling.
Here's a closer look at the risks to salon workers and their clients if hair-straightening products do indeed contain formaldehyde.
What is formaldehyde, and why is it dangerous?
At room temperature, formaldehyde is a gas with a pungent smell. It is present in smog and cigarette smoke and can emanate from pressed wood products and textiles such as drapes and carpets.
There are two concerns with formaldehyde: breathing its vapors and getting the liquid on your skin. However, "it all depends on exposure amounts and concentrations in products," says Dede Montgomery, an industrial hygienist at Oregon Health & Science University's Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology.
People who are exposed to high enough levels of formaldehyde gas might feel a burning sensation in their nose and eyes. Inhalation can cause coughing, wheezing, headache and nausea.
"If you're getting that high a dose that's causing those kinds of effects, that's pretty serious," says Martyn Smith, a toxicologist at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. He noted that the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified formaldehyde as a Group 1 carcinogen, which means it causes cancer in people. "It's bad news."
Does Brazilian Blowout contain formaldehyde?
It depends on whom you ask. Investigators from Montgomery's center asked Oregon's Occupational Safety and Health Division to test the company's Acai Professional Smoothing Solution, which is labeled "formaldehyde free." They subjected samples to four testing methods, and all of them found that formaldehyde composed between 6.3% and 10.6% of the product. At the highest measure, that's more than 100 times the 0.1% level the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has deemed safe.
In further testing, Oregon OSHA found an average of 8% formaldehyde in 37 samples of Acai Professional Smoothing Solution. Similar levels were found in 19 samples of Brazilian Blowout Solution that didn't carry the "formaldehyde free" label but also didn't list it in the product information and safety sheets.
GIB did not return calls and e-mails to discuss the matter. In a statement, the California company has said it conducted its own tests and found only 0.0002% formaldehyde in the product — low enough to qualify as formaldehyde-free. The company also disputed the initial Oregon results because the samples came from an opened bottle, which may have been mixed with or contaminated by another product.
Another statement from the product's maker said that "Oregon OSHA and its officials failed to distinguish between formaldehyde and methylene glycol."
Why would formaldehyde be confused with methylene glycol?
When dissolved in liquid, formaldehyde combines with water molecules to form methylene glycol. Because formaldehyde gas can vaporize out of such solutions, government agencies such as OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health routinely combine both chemical forms in reporting formaldehyde levels.
"Whether you call it methylene glycol or formaldehyde in the gas form, we're referring to both of those," Montgomery says.
What is the health risk for salon workers and their customers?
Typically, a hairdresser applies the product to washed, damp hair and then uses a blow dryer to dry the hair and a flat iron to finish straightening it. The whole process takes about 90 minutes. Though the exposure route is not entirely clear, presumably a formaldehyde-containing solution could be releasing the gas when the bottle is open, during application and when the treated hair is heated with the blow dryer and flat iron. The customer and the stylist could be breathing the fumes.
Is it illegal to use formaldehyde in salon products?
According to the federal OSHA standard, if employees are using products that contain more than 0.1% formaldehyde, their employer must train them about the risks and symptoms of exposure and teach them how to take precautions. They also must perform air testing.
Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration tested the air at seven salons while a straightening treatment was being performed. It measured formaldehyde amounts ranging from 0.11 to 1.88 parts per million (ppm), below the OSHA limit of 2 ppm for short-term exposures.
However, Montgomery says that other groups are more conservative. For instance, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists sets an upper limit of 0.3 ppm and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends a short-term limit of 0.1 ppm.
What level of exposure is safe?
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, the world's leading cancer agency, concluded in 2004 that formaldehyde causes nasopharyngeal cancer. Formaldehyde exposure also has been linked with increased rates of leukemia and nasal and sinus cancers, but the evidence is not as definitive.
In addition, some people appear to develop a sensitivity to formaldehyde over time, kind of like an allergic reaction, Montgomery says. "We don't fully understand why some people react that way and others don't," she says. "But we do know that you can have a reaction and continue to have reactions at fairly low concentrations when you breathe that material in."
Formaldehyde exposure may be new to hair salons, but it is common in the making of pressed wood products, certain resins and plastics, as well as in firefighting and agriculture. These industries are well-versed with OSHA standards and take measures to reduce their exposure. For instance, the National Funeral Directors Assn. regularly updates its best-practice guidelines.
Is the problem widespread?
Since first posting an alert about Brazilian Blowout Solution, Montgomery's organization has heard from salon workers across the country who describe symptoms including "burning of eyes and throat, watering of eyes, dry mouth, loss of smell, headache and a feeling of 'grogginess,' malaise, shortness of breath and breathing problems, a diagnosis of epiglottitis attributed by the stylist to their use of the product, fingertip numbness, and dermatitis," according to a joint report from the Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology and Oregon OSHA.
In addition, the Food and Drug Administration has received about a dozen reports of adverse events from consumers and salon workers, says spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey. The agency is investigating the health risks posed by the hair straighteners and posting updates about its investigation at its website.