Ask someone who has had a Brazilian Blowout or other keratin straightening treatment, and more often than not you will get a giddy, breathless account of how it has changed her life. Indeed, my friend Jodi, who was an early adopter of the Japanese and then keratin straighteners said, “I would give my left arm before giving it up.” Trust me, she means it.
But there’s a chance she may have to give it up. Perhaps the frizzy, unkempt hair Marc Jacobs showed on his S/S 2011 runway is a harbinger of bad hair days to come.
The hair straightening product Brazilian Blowout is at the center of the controversy, faced with accusations that it contains dangerously high levels of formaldehyde. Health Canada, a government-based health agency, tested the product after it received multiple complaints and found that it contained 12% formaldehyde. Health Canada issued a statement on October 7th recommending that all Canadian salons stop offering the treatment. Brazilian Blowout, which claims it contains no formaldehyde, has also come under scrutiny here in the US. After salon workers in Oregon complained of eye irritation, nose burning, and difficulty breathing, the Oregon Health & Science University’s Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology tested the formula. Their results indicated that the solution contained between 4.85 and 10.6% formaldehyde. Some salons have voluntarily pulled the product, but the FDA has made no official statement yet.
So what exactly do all these percentages mean? The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel, an industry organization responsible for monitoring cosmetic safety, declared that a product should contain less than 0.2% formaldehyde to be considered safe. So 12% is 60 times more than the “safe” amount. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and also causes a variety of respiratory and skin problems at high levels.
Oregon OSHA and the Brazilian Blowout (BB) company have been engaged in a press release pissing match since September 29th based on the findings. First, BB claimed that OSHA didn’t request a sample from the company directly, therefore negating all test results because the solution could have been contaminated. On October 4th, BB claimed in a rather random and cryptic statement on its site that it stood by its “no formaldehyde” claims. Then on October 5th it released a statement that after independent testing, BB solution does contain trace amounts of formaldehyde, but no more than what occurs naturally, and in an amount that still allows them to claim “no formaldehyde.”
Finally, on October 8th, Brazilian Blowout let loose with a tirade against OSHA, calling the organization's testing methods faulty because it measured methylene glycol, not formaldehyde. OSHA responded the same day stating that formaldehyde and methylene glycol are the same thing, and that air samples indicated that dangerous levels of formaldehyde were released. (In the salon, the solution is applied to the hair, hair is blow dried, and then flat ironed at high temperatures. This is the step during which the stylists noted the unpleasant symptoms.)
After wading through all the press releases, what exactly is the significance of all this? I got a “C” in organic chemistry in college (I really can’t be blamed for this. It was at 8:30 a.m. on Friday mornings) so I decided to consult an expert. I spoke to a PhD organic chemist with more than 20 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry about the chemical properties of formaldehyde.
After an informative lesson on carbonyl structure, he said, “The long and short of it is that methylene glycol equals formaldehyde, period, get over it, done, move on.” He also told me that there are chemicals that can be put into solution that when heated, turn into formaldehyde quickly. So a chemical that is not technically formaldehyde in solution, can turn into formaldehyde. The miracle of modern chemistry.
A WebMD article noted that formaldehyde is needed to bond with the keratin in these treatments, and that any product with less than 2% formaldehyde probably wouldn’t work. So you can draw the obvious conclusions.
As of now, only the Brazilian Blowout solution has been targeted. But this isn’t a new problem with these products. Allure reported high formaldehyde levels in some brands back in 2007. And Jodi, my beautifully coiffed friend--who now lives in Canada after moving from NYC--says, “I used to ask the guy who did my hair in NYC why our eyes burned so badly if it was natural and he would say, ‘Oh, I'm sure it is some plant based acids.’ WTF?! I never questioned further [be]cause frankly I didn't care. It works so amazingly it could burn three layers of scalp off the top of my head and I'd still use it.”
So there you go. Are we burning, er, burying our silky smooth heads in the sand? Or is this really not a big deal?