The first whispers of summer are in the air, foretelling sunny days, sultry nights, and trips to the beach. For better or worse, it also means that many women crowd into salons and spas in a frenzy of pre-summer health and beauty rituals. And it’s no small task to prepare for all the bared skin and exposure to the elements—that’s right, ladies and gents, I’m talking about the Brazilian.
No, not that Brazilian. I’m talking about the Brazilian Blowout (also known as Keratin Treatment), a salon procedure that claims to “improve the health and condition of the hair,” “eliminate frizz,” and “smooth the cuticle.” These are tantalizing promises to a curly-haired woman like me. Between my Irish ringlets and Puerto Rican kink (thanks, Mom and Dad!) my hair can be a handful—and the swampy, sticky DC summers don’t help. Neither do the countless women’s magazines, ugly duckling movies, and makeover TV shows that portray hair like mine as a problem, a “before” picture in desperate need of a stick-straight “after.” So, when I see photos of Jennifer Aniston, Halle Berry, and Nicole Richie rocking smooth, shiny locks, I hear the siren call of hassle-free hair and think, “Why not?”
In a word? Formaldehyde. Yes, that same stinky soup that held the dissecting frogs in 10th grade biology is now available in your local high-end hair salon. Initially, this rather disturbing information came to light late last year when salon workers reported headaches, eye irritation, difficulty breathing, and nose bleeds, all symptoms of short-term formaldehyde exposure. When Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) tested samples of Brazilian Blowout products, they found dangerous levels of the chemical, including in products explicitly labeled “Formaldehyde Free.”
Investigators have concluded that the process of applying the solution to hair, and then using a blow dryer and flatiron, aerosolized the formaldehyde, making it easy for salon workers and clients to inhale. This is a great discovery if you’re looking for an effective biological weapon, but definitely bad news for women’s health. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, and scientific studies have linked it to miscarriage, stillbirth, menstrual disorders, and female infertility. Just last week, the beauty industry’s own scientists finally acknowledged that they cannot guarantee the safety of formaldehyde-containing hair straighteners. And by the way, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of toxic cosmetics targeted to women of color.
Now, you’re probably thinking, Brazilian Blowout products have been recalled, right? Because putting a nasty chemical like formaldehyde into a product that women all over the country use must be illegal, RIGHT? Sadly, this is not the case. While Canada has stopped the distribution of these toxic products, Ireland has issued a recall, and the California Attorney General’s office has filed a lawsuit, there has been no nation-wide recall or federal government action to stop the use of these harmful products. And it’s certainly not for lack of effort by women’s health groups like Women’s Voices for the Earth, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the National Healthy Salon Alliance.
Unfortunately, the laws that are supposed to protect us from toxic cosmetics are 70 years old and badly broken—and the Brazilian Blowout brouhaha is a symptom of a failed system. There are no safeguards in place to prevent dangerous products from coming on the market, and no real labeling requirements—which is exactly how a product touted as “Formaldehyde Free” was found to contain dangerous levels of formaldehyde. There are over 12,000 ingredients used in cosmetics, yet 89 percent of them have not been reviewed for safety. In fact, voluntary recalls and anemic self-regulation are all that stands between American families and toxic chemicals in everyday products—from Brazilian Blowout to body wash, baby bottles to blue jeans.
I checked the Brazilian Blowout website today, and the company is heavily featuring a new product called “ZERO” which, they claim, “releases 0% Formaldehyde.” Given that there’s no real oversight of claims like this, I’m skeptical. The company is also standing behind their original formulation—you know, the one that gave salon workers nosebleeds and could be making clients infertile.
Women and workers deserve better. Fortunately, there is something we can do (besides just pulling our hair out from frustration). In the coming months, Congress is expected to introduce legislation that would update our national chemical policy, ensure that products are safe before allowing them in our homes and workplaces, and provide consumers and federal agencies with the information they need to protect human health. To make sure Congress lives up to this important responsibility, you can sign a petition asking President Obama to create a cancer prevention plan that stops the use of cancer-causing chemicals (like formaldehyde) in products we use every day.
Until we have common-sense regulation of chemicals in cosmetics and everyday products, the status quo—labels that lie and products that poison—will continue. So, until I can trust that a Brazilian Blowout isn’t going to give me cancer or make it hard for me to have kids someday, I’m keeping my curls, thank you very much. And I’ll use some of the time I’m not sitting at the salon to sign that petition to President Obama and send it to 10 women I care about. Because beauty is pain sometimes, but this is ridiculous.
Quick tip: How safe are your cosmetics? Find out here.
Kimberly Inez Mcguire is the Senior Associate, Programs & Policy for the Reproductive Health Technologies Project.