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Brazilian Keratin Hair Straighteners


Wishing you could tame those curls and get rid of the frizz on a wet day? Lots of products on the market and in salons are promising just that – fuss-free straight hair that lasts for months. While that may sound appealing at first, you usually aren't being told about the dangers with these products. Hair-straightening products are notorious for causing adverse reactions, and given the chemistry needed to straighten naturally curly hair it's no wonder!

What's in Those Hair Straighteners?

Formaldehyde: The news has focused mostly around one brand, Brazilian Blowout, but it's recently come to light that many brands of Brazilian keratin smoothing treatments contain high levels of formaldehyde. See formaldehyde levels in other brands.

Formaldehyde changes the chemistry of hair, allowing hair that has been flat-ironed to stay straight for longer periods of time. Brazilian Blowout products were found to contain up to 12 percent formaldehyde – and there was even formaldehyde in its products labeled "formaldehyde-free."

Unfortunately, formaldehyde is also incredibly toxic. The hair-straightening process requires heat to be applied to the hair along with the straightening solution; this causes the formaldehyde in the product to off-gas into the air of the salon. Formaldehyde gas is a dangerous pollutant that can be severely irritating to the eyes, nose and throat. In fact, it's the same chemical that was off-gassing from FEMA trailers and making people sick after Hurricane Katrina.

Long-term exposure to formaldehyde in the workplace has been associated with an increased risk of cancer. Salon workers performing Brazilian keratin straightening treatments have reported difficulty breathing, nose bleeds and stinging eyes, and some customers have reported hair loss after the treatment.

Timeline and Status Update

• After the first salon worker complaints surfaced in Oregon in October 2010, other countries such as Ireland, France, Australia, Canada and Cyprus recalled formaldehyde-containing hair straighteners based on their own testing. Soon after, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and other advocates called on the FDA to recall the products.

• In March 2011, the Cosmetics Ingredient Review, the industry-funded panel of scientists tasked with reviewing the safety of cosmetic products in the U.S., declared that it could not conclude that formaldehyde exposure from these types of products is safe.

• In April 2011, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a hazard alert warning against the use of hair straighteners containing formaldehyde.

•Also in April, the California Attorney General filed an injunction against Brazilian Blowout, seeking to require health warnings on the products. It was the first enforcement action the state has taken under the California Safe Cosmetics Act, a 2005 law supported by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

• In May 2011, 10 members of Congress wrote a letter to the FDA expressing their deep concern regarding formaldehyde-containing hair-straighteners and asking the agency to take immediate action to protect workers and consumers.

• In August 2011, nearly a year after the first complaints, the FDA sent a warning letter to Brazilian Blowout stating that its product is "adulterated and misbranded." The August letter gave Brazilian Blowout until September 12, 2011 to comply. In September, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the National Healthy Nail and Beauty Salon Alliance followed up with a letter to the FDA asking for more: a public accounting of Brazilian Blowout's response to the FDA warning, a voluntary recall and an investigation of other similar hair-straightening products on the market.

• In September 2011, OSHA cited four Florida companies that make or distribute formaldehyde-containing hair products for failing to protect company employees from formaldehyde exposure and not telling salons and stylists about the hazards. OSHA also issued a new hazard alert, confirming that (despite the company's statements otherwise) Brazilian Blowout products had violated OSHA's limits on formaldehyde in air tests in salons.

•In January 2012, the manufacturers of Brazilian Blowout were forced to cease deceptive advertising practices and put caution stickers on their products advising users that the product releases formaldehyde gas, according to the settlement agreement with California Attorney General’s office. The settlement is the first comprehensive and enforceable action by U.S. government authorities to address formaldehyde exposures associated with use of these products.

What Can You Do?

Love your curls! Choose not to have a hair-straightening treatment done on your hair until the federal government regulates these products and can confirm they are safe to use.

Go old school. Hair-smoothing with a flat iron is a little more work and won't last as long, but it can give you the same straightening results without the risk of dangerous chemical exposure.

Demand change! Ask the FDA to follow through on its August 2011 warning to Brazilian Blowout.