What's Up With Hair Straightening Treatments?

Illustration for article titled What's Up With Hair Straightening Treatments?

My mom used to tell me “beauty is pain” when she’d unsnarl sticks from my hair or held the crimper a little too close to my scalp. She was right, of course, beauty is pain and sometimes sickness or worse.


Brazilian Blowout, a professional hair smoothing formula, first appeared on the market in 2007. It gained almost a cult following with adherents like Halle Barry and Jennifer Anniston. The solution, sold exclusively to salons, advertised itself as formaldehyde-free. It was anything but. After numerous reports from salon workers who complained of skin and eye irritation and breathing problems, all side effects of formaldehyde, the Attorney General for the State of California filed a lawsuit against Brazilian Blowout alleging they had lied about the chemicals in their solution.

In 2011, OSHA issued a hazard alert about the product and a few months later, the FDA issued a warning letter. In response, the company did nothing. They didn’t have to. The FDA cannot mandate a recall of personal care products. All they can do is strongly suggest that a product is dangerous. Companies often cooperate, but not Brazilian Blowout.

In 2012, they settled the lawsuit from the state of California and paid $600,000 in fees and penalties, agreeing to put a warning label on their bottles. They also settled a class-action lawsuit paying out almost $4.5 million to consumers and salon workers. But in The New York Times, Michael Brady, the president of the company, bragged that they’d never change their formula. “We get to sell the product forever without reformulation,” he told the paper. “In my eyes, that’s the acquittal we’ve been waiting for.” Why should they change? Despite all the negative press, Brazilian Blowout was named the Best Professional Smoothing Treatment by readers of American Salon magazine in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

During the height of the controversy, when salons were refusing to carry Brazilian Blowout, women still asked for it. Hair stylists would secretly go to client’s homes and apply the solution there. There are other hair smoothing formulas, of course, but they aren’t as popular.

And even those other products aren’t above their own scandals. Suave’s 30 Day Smoothing Kit faced a similar class-action lawsuit after marketing itself as formaldehyde-free and, well, actually being rife with formaldehyde. Oops! But what’s a little known carcinogen among friends, right?

So, why all the fuss now? Aren’t these stories old? Well, not really. The truth is these products still contain formaldehyde and it’s still causing problems. Recently, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a report noting that these hair smoothing products are still out there, still dangerous and still largely unregulated. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the EWG found that salon workers are still at risk from formaldehyde. They note, “…salon personnel and clients have filed numerous ‘adverse event’ reports after hair straightening sessions, including massive hair loss, neck and face rashes, blistered scalps, nosebleeds, bleeding gums and loss of taste and smell.”


Additionally, according to Brazilian Blowout’s own safety testing, the product contains 3-5% methalyne glycol (the name for liquid formaldehyde, also known as formalin), down from 11.8% from the original formula. To compare, the Cosmetics Ingredients Review, an industry-run regulatory body, recommends that cosmetics have no more than a 0.2% concentration of formalin. Although, when I reached the FDA for comment about recommended levels of formaldehyde/formalin/methalyne glycol in hair products, they told me via email, “The FDA continues to evaluate the use of formaldehyde, methylene glycol, and other formaldehyde-related ingredients in cosmetic products on a case-by-case basis.”

So, to recap: Formaldehyde, what is basically agreed to be a known carcinogen and a general irritant, is allowed to roam free in your hair products.


When I reached out to Brazilian Blowout about their product they had no official response. And the few people I talked to seemed pretty irritated that all of this was being dragged up again. In an information sheet and letter distributed to salons back in 2011, the company claimed that the government and media (hey guys!) were spreading misinformation and that the product “when used properly” was perfectly safe. All that irritation and sickness, that’s apparently our fault.

So, what the hell is going on? Basically, formaldehyde is a gas, not a liquid. So, in order to put it in your products it has to be converted to a liquid. As a liquid, formaldehyde is known as formalin or methalyne glycol and is technically not formaldehyde. The formaldehyde gas is released when the product dries or is exposed to heat, such as with hair dryers and flat irons, all of which are part of the hair straightening process. (I wrote a longer explanation of formaldehyde and how it works here, if you want to get technical.) When I spoke on the phone with Tina Sigurdson, staff attorney for the EWG, she noted that this technical difference is how companies claim to be “formaldehyde-free” while actually being anything but. It also makes it hard to regulate, because the amount of formaldehyde concentration that is released depends largely on individual hairstylists’ methods and product choices.


I reached out to the Personal Care Products Council for some clarity and they pointed me to this statement on formaldehyde in products, which notes that an expert panel commissioned by the council found “ …the safety of methylene glycol and formaldehyde in hair straightening products depends on a number of factors, including the concentration of formaldehyde and methylene glycol, the amount of product applied, the temperature used during the application process, and the ventilation provided at the point of use. The Panel concluded that under present practices of use and concentration, formaldehyde and methylene glycol are unsafe in hair straightening products.”

This is also basically what the FDA says as well. They sent me a statement via email that read: “The FDA continues to evaluate the safety and labeling of hair-smoothing products on a case-by-case basis. However, the Brazilian Blowout Warning Letter is based on a review of a specific product and should not be interpreted as a broad evaluation of the safety of formaldehyde, methylene glycol, or other formaldehyde-related ingredients in cosmetic products generally. Other hair-smoothing products may vary with respect to composition, conditions of use, and other factors. Companies and individuals who manufacture or market cosmetic products have a legal responsibility to ensure the safety and proper labeling of their products and ingredients.”


Basically, what is going on is, salons are using products with formaldehyde in them and it’s causing problems. But as long as people still want these products, the salons will keep using them. And the industry is wary, but permissive. And the FDA, with limited power over personal care products, lives in this nebulous “case-by-case” basis.

So, enter Senators Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). They are co-sponsoring a bill, the Personal Care Products Safety Act 2015, that would give the FDA more regulatory teeth to mandate a recall of personal care products (you know, should a product claim to be poison-free and still have poison in it) and leverage more control over the industry. Sigurdson noted that this bill has “broad-based industry support,” which would make sense because right now, due to lack of FDA authority, states have enacted their own laws, which can get a little confusing for companies. The Cosmetics Ingredients Review did not respond to my attempts to contact them about this bill. But the FDA had this to say, “The Administration has not taken a position on the legislation. However, the Administration recognizes the need to strengthen the FDA’s regulatory program for cosmetics. The President’s FY 2016 budget requests authority to require cosmetic firms to register their establishments and products with the FDA and to pay a user fee. Registration would give FDA basic authority to identify what cosmetic products are being marketed and by whom, and user fees would help pay for this activity. These authorities would be an important step toward improving the agency capacity to promote greater safety and understanding of cosmetic products. Other measures, such as mandatory recall authority, and requiring cosmetics companies to report adverse events and comply with product manufacturing standards, would also be important tools in an enhanced safety program.” Which is encouraging.


The Personal Care Products Council has this statement on the bill, which lends it tepid support. Clarifying in an email, Lauren Brady, Public Affairs Specialist at Personal Care Products Council, noted “…we cannot say we fully support this bill as there are still items that need to be strengthened.”

But the bill does address the formaldehyde-shaped holes in the personal care products industry. Additionally, the funding for the bill would come from the industry itself and would take the regulation out of the industry’s hands (and the hands of consumers and salons) and give it to the government.


Beauty has been synonymous with pain for centuries. Women have used belladonna, or deadly nightshade, in their eyes to make them appear more seductive. Throughout the centuries makeup has contained cyanide, mercury, rat poisoning. Lead makeup made the Romans insane and infertile and killed Marie Gunning, Countess of Coventry, and many others. And without going into the societal, economic and patriarchal factors that lead to all of that, I’m going to say, this bill seems like a pretty good idea. Beauty doesn’t have to hurt.

Bottom line: Save us, Diane Feinstein!

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.



I wish we could just move on from the “straight hair is the only professional hair” mentality. I’ve flat out been told in the past that if I’m not going to straighten my hair (which is already pretty straight, but there are some waves here and there), I should put it up if I’m going to be in the office.