Brazilian Hair Straightening: Could It “Blow Out” Your Hair?
The news of potential exposure to formaldehyde (a known human carcinogen1) from Brazilian hair straightening treatments began to surface almost four years ago, but adverse event reports recently released by the FDA reveal that some users have experienced hair loss after receiving these treatments.
In case you aren’t familiar with keratin straightening treatments (marketed under such names as Brazilian Blowout, Brazilian Keratin Treatment, and Keratin Complex), here is a brief description of the procedure.
Brazilian Blowout states on their product website that their original formula “improves the condition of the hair by creating a protective protein layer around the hair shaft to eliminate frizz and smooth the cuticle.”
According to an Associated Press article2 keratin straightening treatments “surfaced around 2005 in Brazil,” while an article3 on the Modern Salon website claims the procedure arose in the late 1990s in rural Brazil.
These treatments contain two critical ingredients: keratin, a protein found in hair and skin; and chemicals that bond the keratin onto the recipients own hair. The most common bonding chemical is formaldehyde dissolved in water (a.k.a. formalin, methylene glycol), a preservative used in embalming fluid.
In a standard treatment, the keratin/formalin solution is applied to the hair, followed by blow-drying and flat ironing at almost 450o F. The high temperatures used to lock in the treatment result in the production of “clouds of acrid-smelling smoke that stings the eyes.”2
Warnings from Public Agencies
The growing list of government health agencies that have issued warnings about formaldehyde exposure from these procedures already includes the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA),4 Health Canada,5 and the Irish Medicines Board.6
Oregon OSHA issued a final report7 on hair smoothing treatments and formaldehyde on October 29, 2010. Tests on 37 samples of Brazilian Blowout Acai Professional Smoothing Solution “Formaldehyde Free” found an average of 8.8% formaldehyde in the product.
Air monitoring tests in seven salons showed that performing a single treatment during one day did not result in actionable levels of formaldehyde in the air, but the report suggested that three comparable treatments by one stylist in the same day could result in levels exceeding the permissible exposure limit. Oregon OSHA “concluded that there are meaningful risks to salon workers when they are confronted with these hair smoothing products.”
Responses from Manufacturers
Some companies insisted their products were “formaldehyde free” because they were made with methylene glycol. Although methylene glycol is made from formaldehyde, known as “formaldehyde in solution” or formaldehyde monohydrate, and capable of releasing formaldehyde into the air, a scientist with ties to the cosmetics industry argued that the chemical formula of methylene glycol is distinct from that of formaldehyde (one ends in -ol and the other in -aldehyde) and therefore products containing methylene glycol should not be considered to contain formaldehyde as an ingredient.
After Oregon OSHA publicized its test results, several manufacturers released statements regarding the “formaldehyde free” label and whether formaldehyde was an ingredient in their products (see examples here and here).
Brazilian Blowout subsequently removed the “formaldehyde free” claim from their original formula and released a new product called Brazilian Blowout Zero that does not contain methylene glycol.
Reports of Hair Loss and a Petition to the FDA
An organization called the Environmental Working Group (EWG) petitioned the FDA this April to take regulatory action regarding hair smoothing treatments that contain methylene glycol. In the document8 available on their website, EWG cites numerous adverse events reported to the FDA.
“In fact, FDA has received at least 47 adverse event reports about these products since 2008, according to records obtained in response to several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.”
Beyond the concerns about cancer, the headaches, itching, burning eyes, and respiratory irritation, some of the adverse event reports involve hair loss:
“Within five days of the treatment I began losing large amounts of hair… experienced about a 40% volume loss in my hair and it continues to fall out at the same alarming pace[.]”
“After washing/rinsing [the] product out of her hair complainant immediately noted hair loss... Over time [her] hair became thin and she experienced more hair los[s][.]”
“My hair started falling out and continues to do so[.] I have been to my dermatologist and he confirms that my hair follicles have been damaged[.]”
“within a week had extreme hair loss which has not stopped”
Although reports of hair loss following keratin straightening treatments appear to be few in number at this point, and there is no proof that the hair loss experienced by users was a direct result of the treatments they received, they may be worth keeping in mind when you’re choosing a solution for managing frizzy hair.
Keep checking back here on the Avacor® hair regrowth blog for updates on the safety issues surrounding keratin treatments and future regulatory actions taken by government agencies.
1. “Formaldehyde - Substance Profile” from the 12th Report on Carcinogens, National Toxicology Program, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. June 10, 2011.
2. “Hazardous for Health? Roots of Brazilian Blowout.” Associated Press, via ABC News website. February 24, 2011. (accessed June 29, 2011)
3. “Salon Today Investigates Brazilian Keratin Services.” Modern Salon website. March 11, 2009. (accessed June 29, 2011)
4. “Hazard Alert - Hair Smoothing Products That Could Release Formaldehyde” Occupational Safety & Health Administration, U.S. Department of Labor. Updated June 9, 2011. (accessed June 29, 2011)
5. “Brazilian Blowout Solution Contains Formaldehyde: Update” Health Canada Advisory 2010-182. October 26, 2010.
6. “Concerns Relating to use of Certain Hair Straightening Products – Update.” Irish Medicines Board. November 29, 2010.
7. “‘Keratin-Based’ Hair Smoothing Products And the Presence of Formaldehyde.” Oregon OSHA and CROET at Oregon Health & Sciences University. October 29, 2010.
8. “Citizen Petition for Regulatory Action to Address Safety Concerns Surrounding Keratin Hair-Straighteners that Contain Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde Releasing Chemicals as Ingredients.” Environmental Working Group. April 12, 2011.