By Anna Gaynor and Patty Hastings
Everyone has a bad hair story. Kiersten Regelin paid $150 for hers.
After getting a “Brazilian blowout,” also known as a keratin hair straightening treatment a few weeks ago, her normally long curly locks were smooth and shiny. But the treatment fried off part of her hair, she said.
“There was damage mostly at the root and the hair line, which apparently a lot of people are complaining about with this particular type of treatment,” she said. “There’s also damage kind of like in the middle of my hair, too, but I have enough hair where it kind of covers it up. I’ve been losing hair by the handful.”
Regelin had the treatment done in Palo Alto, Calif., yet when the Northwestern University MBA recently visited Chicago, a routine haircut showed her the damage. Her stylist wet her hair, and Regelin could see split ends sticking out.
“She was getting woozy just washing my hair and blow drying it because it still smells like chemicals,” weeks after the treatment, she said.
The culprit was formaldehyde, used to some degree in many of the straightening treatments, Regelin recalled the stylist telling her.
Regelin was surprised because she specifically picked a product labeled “formaldehyde free.”
“She had to wash it out twice,” she added. “She was telling me that if it was formaldehyde-free, or even low in formaldehyde, there’s no way that she would’ve had to wash it out twice.”
Her stylist said the relaxers might have been, in effect, too strong for her hair, Regelin said.
Alex Ioannou, the owner of Trio Salon in Chicago doesn’t know Regelin, said relaxers being that are too strong might be one of many reasons for breakage. Ioannou said that often product labels are misleading.
Products may contain related chemicals not listed as formaldehyde or may release formaldehyde when solutions vaporizes as the hair is ironed to straighten it.
Within the last two months, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released a hazard alert for such hair products and 10 members of Congress have signed a petition in May asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to react.
The controversy has spread since a study released in fall by the state of Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration revealed that keratin treatments may be potentially dangerous, with misleading labeling.
Often called Brazilian blowouts, these keratin hair treatments originated in Brazil and made their way to U.S. salons about five years ago.
The treatment infuses the hair with keratin, the same protein in hair, but the keratin is suspended in a chemical solution. After applying the product, a stylist straightens the hair with a flat iron, locking in the style and smoothing the hair molecules.
Cases similar to Regelin’s have spotlighted products claiming to be formaldehyde free, while others may have unsafe levels of formaldehyde in them. The risk to salon patrons from breathing fumes released by the solutions is small, but stylists and workers in the salon might be more affected due exposure.
Like many other women, Regelin had no idea about the debate until she read an article online nearly two weeks after the treatment. She is not sure she will do it again.
“I haven’t decided yet,” she said. “It’s really expensive, and I’ve gotten a lot of really good feedback” despite the initial hair damage.
Start of the controversy
When stylists in a Portland salon found that performing keratin treatments left them with irritated eyes and some difficulty breathing right after treatments, they contacted the Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology or CROET, a department of Oregon Health and Science University.
In September 2010, the center contacted the state’s OSHA, one of the few in the country with its own research laboratory, said Melanie Mesaros, the public information officer for Oregon’s OSHA.
The salon sent a sample of the product it used to be analyzed and, soon after, the administration started testing other brands as well. In October, OSHA and the research center jointly released a paper showing their findings.
The researchers tested for the presence of formaldehyde in the products and in the air quality after treatment. More than 100 samples were tested from 54 salons across the state, according to the report issued in October by the research center’s and OSHA in Oregon.
The researchers identified specific brands to test more rigorously. Thirty-seven of those samples were of the Brazilian Blowout Acai Professional Smoothing Solution, which is labeled formaldehyde free, and 19 were just of the Brazilian Blowout Solution where formaldehyde was absent from the ingredient listing.
The Brazilian Blowout Acai Professional Smoothing Solution was found to contain on average of 8.8 percent formaldehyde, according to the report. The Brazilian Blowout Solution had 8 percent of the chemical on average, according to the report.
Ten other products were tested. Three were below 0.1 percent formaldehyde, federal OSHA’s formaldehyde standard, which means it does not have to appear in the ingredient listing.
Alejandra Mar from technical support at Bio Ionic, which produces KeraSmooth Anti-Frizz Treatment, said the company’s treatment is free of formaldehyde or related chemicals. The smoothing treatment from the Los Angeles-based company was tested for the research center and Oregon’s OSHA report and was found to contain less than 0.01 formaldehyde.
Brazilian Blowout’s Acai Professional Smoothing Solution had the highest percentage of formaldehyde in the solution even though it claims to be formaldehyde free, according to the report. Company representatives could not be reached for comment.
“That was one of our biggest concerns,” Mesaros said. “If you don’t know there’s formaldehyde in it, how can you protect yourself?”
One of the bigger issues involving products labeled “formaldehyde free” was the release of the chemical when heat is applied to the hair with a straightening iron.
None of the air samples reached illegal limits according to the federal government’s standards, but the Oregon report suggested that repeated blowouts in one salon without proper ventilation could lead to unsafe levels.
Many of the products contain and list an ingredient called methylene glycol, essentially a form of formaldehyde in solution, according to the F. Alan Andersen, the director of the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, an independent review board based in Washington, D.C.
“The truth of the matter is that the two chemicals are interchangeable, formaldehyde and methylene glycol,” Andersen said. “It’s just being truthful in the labeling,” he said.
The CIR hosts a panel of physicians and scientists who review and analyze ingredient safety information.
After the release of Oregon OSHA’s study, the Delray Beach, Fla. manufacturer of the Marcia Teixeira brand Brazilian Keratin Treatment released a response.
“Methylene glycol, which does not appear on the FDA’s official list of prohibited cosmetic ingredients, is the ingredient in our treatments that will produce a trace level of formaldehyde vapor when high heat is applied,” it read. “For that reason, we can state that formaldehyde is not an ingredient in our treatments, but, we cannot, and have never claimed that they are formaldehyde free.”
Currently the CIR advises that the percentage of formaldehyde in a product should be at most 0.2. The review originally released the guidelines for products that were going to make contact with the skin, but it had to amend its statement to specifically say it did not apply to products intended to be vaporized.
Within the past two months, the chemical debate has come to a head. In April, the federal OSHA released a health alert about the chemical and smoothing products, and in May, a group in Congress signed a letter asking the FDA to respond to the Oregon OSHA and the research center study.
“FDA is working with state and local organizations, as well as OSHA, to determine whether the products or ingredients would be likely to cause health problems under the intended conditions of use,” wrote Stephanie Yao from the FDA Office of Public Affairs in an email.
The administration will be examining the labels on the products, which include instructions and warning labels.
“One safety issue we’ll be evaluating is whether formaldehyde may be released into the air after the product is applied to the hair and heated. FDA is currently in the process of evaluating the data,” she added.
The CIR will report its own revised recommendations for formaldehyde hair treatments during its next meeting on June 27 and 28.
How the body reacts to the chemical
“Formaldehyde is about the only thing in the marketplace that can coagulate protein,” said Shawn Beck, owner of the Embalmers Supply Company in East Lyme, Conn.
Morticians use formaldehyde, composed of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon, to preserve the tissue of dead bodies.
“It’s considered a corrosive material,” Beck said.
Even when the amount released in the air falls under the guidelines, there can be a risk for the stylist. Although the process is most likely harmless to the customer, breathing the chemicals can be very dangerous to the stylist and proper gloves are needed to protect hands from the solution, according to Ioannou from Trio Salon.
He said that if the application is done right, the product should never touch a woman’s scalp.
“It’s all about training, it’s all about application,” he
Formaldehyde can irritate the eyes, nose and throat and lead to coughing and wheezing, according to the federal OSHA web site.
Workers must understand the products they’re working with and know how to clean up spills and properly dispose of the product. In order to ensure worker safety, air must test below OSHA limits and workers must have access to eye and skin washing equipment in case they come in contact with the product, according to OSHA.
Stacy Malkan, the communications director for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, said wants the FDA to move faster in responding to the public health concern.
“We’re glad to see the OSHA alert,” she said. “I think it’s important for salons.”
The campaign works to create legislation that removes chemicals from cosmetics and personal care products. Malkan points out that Canada has already taken action and banned certain products.
“Yet woman across America are getting exposed to unsafe levels,” she added.