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Brazilian Blowout hair straightener draws fire from authorities

by Christina JewettCalifornia Watch
April 14th, 2011

Multiple state, federal and independent advocacy watchdogs have issued alerts, investigation findings and legal filings in recent days about the hair-straightening Brazilian Blowout treatment.

While the product label says “formaldehyde free,” authorities say the formula is anything but. Regulators in several states have found levels of the cancer-causing substance in excess of a range of standards.

“When you’ve got several government agencies at the state, national and international level coming out and warning about a problem, that’s rare,” said Stacy Malkan, a spokeswoman for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. “When it happens you have a serious, indisputable problem on your hands.”

Here is a run-down of recent actions by the California attorney general, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization.

Last week Deputy Attorney General Claudia Polsky filed a proposed injunction in Alameda Superior Court, asking a judge to call on the makers of Brazilian Blowout to warn consumers that the solution contains formaldehyde, a cancer-causing substance.

The hair solution is sold by GIB, a North Hollywood firm that has maintained that its product contains no formaldehyde and also recently released a new plant-based "Zero" formulation of its product.

The injunction, if signed by the judge, would also force the firm to perform an in-depth analysis of the formula for the state Air Resources Board, send product information to the Department of Public Health and back off its “no refunds” policy.

In a memo in support of the proposed court order, the attorney general’s office argues that Brazilian Blowout has launched a fervent public relations campaign to deny that the product contains formaldehyde. The memo says the company sued authorities and scholars in Oregon who initially blew the whistle on the problem, alleging that authorities "manipulated" tests to “scare the public.”

However, independent scientists in California reached similar findings – that Brazilian Blowout contains about 8 percent formaldehyde, legal filings show.

Polsky submitted the declaration of a salon worker who said that even as her eyes were burning, a Brazilian Blowout company representative assured her that the formula is “totally safe.”

Another agency issued a “hazard alert” about the formula this week, noting that makers and distributors of the product failed to warn salon workers of potential exposure risks.

The federal occupational health agency followed similar alerts by authorities in Oregon, California and Connecticut in warning consumers about formaldehyde:

"Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling gas that presents a health hazard if workers are exposed. You can be exposed to formaldehyde if you breathe it into your lungs, if it gets into your eyes, or if it is contained in a product that gets onto your skin. You can also be exposed accidentally if you touch your face, eat food, or drink after using a product containing formaldehyde without first washing your hands. It can irritate the eyes and nose, and cause coughing and wheezing. Formaldehyde is a "sensitizer," which means that it can cause allergic reactions of the skin, eyes, and lungs such as asthma-like breathing problems and skin rashes and itching. When formaldehyde is in a product that gets sprayed into the eyes, it can damage the eyes and cause blindness. It is also a cancer hazard that is linked to nose and lung cancer. Formaldehyde is a health hazard, whether in a product or in the air."

Finally, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group released the findings of an investigation showing that formaldehyde is not just limited to Brazilian Blowout hair products. The report found that products by 15 of 16 hair product companies tested contained formaldehyde, despite claims otherwise.

The report also raises questions about the federal Food and Drug Administration’s regulation, or lack thereof, of hair straightening products. Report authors obtained 47 “adverse event” reports made to the FDA about hair straighteners.

Findings include:

    * The FDA, responsible for cosmetic safety, does not limit amounts of formaldehyde in hair-straightening products and has not taken action against companies using formaldehyde. Hair straighteners based on formaldehyde have been recalled in six countries – Australia, Ireland, Canada, France, Germany and Cyprus – but are still widely used in American salons. The Environmental Working Group is filing a citizens’ petition that asks the FDA to draft regulations regarding formaldehyde in hair straighteners, to protect the health of salon workers and clients.
    * The Federal Trade Commission, whose mission is to protect the public from false and misleading advertising, has failed to take action against hair straightener companies that cover up their products’ high formaldehyde content.

Finally, the report determined that 68 percent of the nation’s top salons use formaldehyde-based hair solutions. And, according to the report:

"Only three of Elle Magazine’s 41 top-rated salons surveyed by EWG do not offer hair straightening services because of health dangers. Nine salons claimed they used products free or nearly free of toxic chemicals. Yet test results compiled by EWG show the products are laden with formaldehyde."