Formaldehyde in Popular Keratin Hair Products Concern State Regulators, Watch Dogs

Mary Louise Parker says she has experienced hair loss due to salon straightening treatments containing Formaldehyde. Beauty can be a hairy situation if you’re uncertain what chemicals your products contain. This is especially true for certain products popularly used in salons for straightening hair. These are often marketed as alternatives to hair relaxing products. State regulators are concerned about excessive levels of formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen, discovered after testing products and air in salons during the application process. These products commonly contain keratin — a natural protein found in the hair, skin, and nails -– plus chemical additives such as formaldehyde.

The compound is applied to freshly washed hair. Following the application, the hair is typically blown dry and straightened with a flat iron. The process can reportedly keep hair straight for about two months.

Consumers can pay as much as $600 for a salon treatment, but it’s not only their wallet that may be stinging following these products’ application. According to Anjali Athavaley, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, “The Food and Drug Administration has received reports of eye irritation, headaches, breathing problems, rashes and fainting among salon workers. It is looking at whether hair-straightening products or ingredients are likely to cause health problems.”

The FDA does not limit the amount of formaldehyde in hair-straightening products, nor has it taken actions against those companies making products containing the chemical. By contrast, formaldehyde-based straighteners have been recalled in at least six countries.

Thus far, it appears only state regulators are actively working to ban products based on these claims, although Procter & Gamble Co. voluntarily removed the popular and potentially problematic Brazilian Blowout line from its Frédéric Fekkai salons in August 2010. The FDA does not limit the amount of formaldehyde in hair-straightening products, nor has it taken actions against those companies making products containing the chemical. By contrast, formaldehyde-based straighteners have been recalled in at least six countries — Australia, Ireland, Canada, France, Germany, and Cyprus.

“There’s a larger problem at issue here. In Europe, more than 1,000 chemicals have been banned for use in cosmetics, many of them carcinogens and reproductive toxicants,” Siobhan O’Connor, an editor with Prevention magazine and the author of No More Dirty Looks, told Time. “In the United States, only eight (or nine by some counts) substances have been restricted or banned by the [Food and Drug Administration (FDA)], because that agency is underfunded and impotent when it comes to real regulation. The system is perfectly designed to let something like the Brazilian blowout get to market without much blowback.”

A recent study of these products, which included a review of 47 “adverse event” reports filed with the FDA, was published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Health problems were reported to the agency by both clients and salon employees who used or were exposed to straightening products. The claims included massive hair loss, severe allergic reactions, and varied dermatological problems.

Early this month, American actress Mary-Louise Parker admitted to having adverse results from what she refers to as “the Brazilian Straightening Treatment.” She told The New York Times, “I’ve experienced hair fall-out in the past, and it is not fun. This treatment resulted in more. My advice: don’t do it!”

15 of 16 companies claim little to no formaldehyde but tests show their products contain substantial amounts!

Because these products are predominantly used by professionals in salons, the study also examined how salons use and whether they use these products. Forty-five product manufacturers were also examined in the EWG study. The most egregious problem: “15 of 16 companies claim little to no formaldehyde but tests show their products contain substantial amounts! These include Brazilian Blowout, Cadiveu and other top brands. The hair straightener company Goleshlee admits on its website that its product contains formaldehyde but omits the toxic chemical from its online ingredient list.”

Based on these findings, the study authors wonder why “government officials charged with protecting public health and worker safety have been slow to move against risky hair straighteners.” They are calling for “far more aggressive actions by federal and state agencies” to product consumers from formaldehyde exposure.

Barring any removal of these products from the market, Dr. Emily Moosbrugger, Cincinnati dermatologist, says women should, but rarely do seek a physician’s advice before using chemicals. Individuals with pre-existing hair and scalp conditions should consult their physician before undergoing any chemical process. “The only reason that I would recommend someone avoid the keratin straightening treatment would be to avoid potential damage to your hair, the same as with any other chemical treatment or straightening product,” she says.

Some beauty lines, including L’Oreal, reportedly now offer alternative straightening treatments for salon use that they claim are safer than keratin products. The EWG says it has filed a citizen petition asking the FDA to draft regulations regarding formaldehyde in hair straighteners that will adequately protect the health of both salon workers and their clients.

By Linda Dailey Paulson
Image by gageskidmore, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Linda Dailey Paulson is a veteran freelance writer and editor. She covers product safety issues for USRCN.

4 thoughts on “Formaldehyde in Popular Keratin Hair Products Concern State Regulators, Watch Dogs

  1. Thank you Dr. Smith for clearing that up. I think some of these companies ‘want’ us to be confused. They want to use the good name of keratin to mask the actual active, toxic ingredients (like formaldehyde) in their products. If they say “Keratin-Based hair straightener” then people just assume that it’s a natural product, yet they aren’t technically breaking laws as long as they include the other ingredients on their label – and some don’t even bother to do that much.

  2. As the founder of the only company that produces keratins for the commercial market, let me reassure you and your readers that keratin in a treatment for hair-straigtening or any other use is not the culprit in this story. Our company Keraplast, extracts keratins,in tact,from New Zealand wool and use these keratins in a variety of personal care products. These keratins are used often to repair the damage caused by formaldehyde formulations. Keratin treatments in the products you mentioned refer to the keratin present in the hair that is being treated. They often phrase their marketing to implicate that their formulations contain functional keratin and they most certainly do not. I hope this information is helpful in understanding this awkward situation.

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