Tests Find Formaldehyde In More Hair Straighteners

Nov 11, 2011

A variety of hair-straightening products used in professional salons can expose both hairdressers and their customers to formaldehyde, an independent study finds. And the chemical can be really irritating, literally.

You might recall that the Food and Drug Administration's has been after the maker Brazilian Blowout, one such product, as Shots has reported. Basically, Brazilian Blowout has been promoted as an alternative to harsh hair straighteners containing, but the government thinks it contains enough formaldehyde that it needs to slap on a warning label.

Brazilian Blowout published a statement on its website earlier this fall, contesting the FDA analysis. "It is important to understand that this relates to the measure of potential formaldehyde released at a level that never occurs in a real world application," the company says.

So, an independent team took the debate directly to the hair salon. Their findings were published in November's issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene.

ChemRisk, a consulting firm that specializes in health and environmental risk assessment, carried out the study, for which it received no external funding.

The results show that three professional hair-smoothing treatments labeled "formaldehyde free" can produce the cancer-causing chemical at concentrations above the occupational exposure limits set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

This study attempts to address some of the gaps in existing data by testing circumstances a hairdresser might face in real life, including using a variety of hair-straightening products within the same setting, and applying consecutive treatments.

Researchers collected their data in a functioning beauty parlor with a professional stylist. The experiment took place in a 14-chair hair salon in Chicago over a 6-hour period during a single day last June.

While the stylist applied each hair straightener to a wig of human hair using the same application, blow-dry, and flat-iron procedures that would be used on a client, the team collected air samples to determine how much formaldehyde the stylist, the client and bystanders in the salon might be exposed to.

They tested four products: Coppola Keratin Complex Blonde Formula, Global Keratin Juvexin Optimized Functional Keratin, La Brasiliana Escluso Keratin Treatment with Collagen, and Brazilian Blowout Acai Professional Smoothing Solution.

Only Global Keratin's packaging notes that it contains formaldehyde. But according to OSHA guidelines, both Global Keratin and Brazilian Blowout would be above the level that would trigger a workplace warning about potential cancer hazards.

The researchers acknowledge that, while they feel the salon they worked in "represents a typical urban salon," exposure to formaldehyde will vary with the size of the building, its ventilation system, and the number of people who get their hair straightened on a given day, among other variables.

And with that caveat, they found average formaldehyde concentrations in the air of 11.5 percent for Brazilian Blowout, 8.3 percent for Global Keratin, and 3 percent for Coppola. Brasiliana was the only product tested that did not contain a detectable amount of formaldehyde.

The airborne formaldehyde levels measured during the study were high enough that stylists and those getting their hair straightened should take note, but for the most part, formaldehyde exposure in other parts of the salon was below OSHA's permissible exposure limit.

Lead author J.S. Pierce told Shots the results "are in general agreement" with previous studies of Brazilian Blowout, performed by Oregon OSHA and other agencies.

Brazilian Blowout issued a statement calling the latest study "fundamentally flawed," citing the large amount of the product used in the ChemRisk experiment.

The exact amount of product used and time of treatment for each brand are not listed in the paper, though the report says that all products were applied "in a manner consistent with their respective manufacturer's recommendations."

Brazilian Blowout's statement did not list any other ways in which the company found the study to be flawed.

"This is a fairly small study," ChemRisk's Pierce notes. "The public would benefit from a broader survey." While ChemRisk tested four popular brands of hair straighteners, there are hundreds on the market.

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