The FDA recently sent a warning letter to the company that makes Brazilian Blowout, saying it was “misbranding” its product as formaldehyde-free even though it “contains methylene glycol, the liquid form of formaldehyde, which . . . may harm users under the conditions of use prescribed in the labeling.”
Michael Brady, chief executive of Brazilian Blowout, said he doesn’t believe methylene glycol is the same as formaldehyde. “For every scientist who says methylene glycol is the same as formaldehyde, we have a scientist who says it is different,” he said. He does agree that once his product is heated with a blow-dryer or hair iron formaldehyde will be a byproduct, but he says it is well within OSHA emission standards.
The company also sells Brazilian Blowout Zero, which uses a “plant-derived” proprietary bonding system and “releases 0% formaldehyde before, during or after the in-salon smoothing treatment,” according to the company’s Web site.
The OSHA/FDA investigation started a year ago with a complaint from a stylist in Portland, Ore., who used Brazilian Blowout and was “experiencing symptoms such as headaches, nose blood, symptoms consistent with exposure to formaldehyde,” said Melanie Mesaros of Oregon’s OSHA. “We took examples of original product . . . and a range of formaldehyde was found in the products. As far as OSHA is concerned, methylene glycol and formaldehyde are the same, and you have to follow the same rules for exposure.”
Since then, OSHA and its state partners have conducted inspections at approximately 24 salons that use hair smoothers and at nine manufacturers and distributors based on complaints around the country, and have received more than 300 requests for assistance from stylists and salon workers.
OSHA has cited salons in New York and New Jersey and four manufacturers and distributors in Florida for allegedly failing to protect their workers from formaldehyde exposure and for failing to “communicate with the products’ users, such as salons and stylists, about the hazards of formaldehyde exposure,” according to an OSHA press release. The agency said it found “formaldehyde overexposure or dangerous levels” in the air in some salons.
At David’s Beautiful People in Rockville, where Varga works as a stylist, owner David Cohen says he limits the number of Brazilian treatments to two a day so as not to overwhelm his salon with formaldehyde. He also runs a ventilation system and an air purifier at all times.
“I stopped taking appointments for Brazilian treatments online so we didn’t overbook,” he said. Still, his clients are clamoring for the products, which range from $160 for a mild, formaldehyde-free smoother that will last up to six weeks to a $450 treatment with formaldahyde that will last up to six months.
“The true non-formaldehyde formulas are not as good as the low-formaldehyde smoothers,” he said, though “they are a good alternative as long as the client and stylist understand the difference between the two.”
He said he is sure many clients will continue to opt for the formaldehyde formulations unless the government decides they should not be sold anymore. “It’s amazing stuff,” Cohen said. “We do a color treatment, then put on the Brazilian and it keeps the color. It seals the hair.”
Varga acknowledged she is concerned about possible long-term consequences to her health from applying the product day after day. “I use a mask” when putting the liquid on customers’ hair, she said.
The desire for smooth, straight hair can be powerful. “You don’t know how many times my scalp was burned,” said Lori Pemberton, a 43-year-old District resident, remembering the sodium hydroxide, or lye, applied to hair when she was a child. This summer she tried a formaldehyde-based smoothing treatment for the first time. “I prefer this any day,” she said. “This seems a lot easier. My hair is shinier. It’s easier to style. I work out every day. I get up at 5 in the morning. Now my hair isn’t frizzy. My hair stays straight.”
Nor have worries about formaldehyde stopped Laurie Taylor, a 37-year-old recruiting coordinator for a District law firm. She once spent more than 45 minutes a day to blow-dry her hair, put it in rollers and then smooth it with a flatiron. “Now I don’t have to do all those extra steps,” she said. “Today, I woke up, washed it, put it in a bun. It will be wavy, with a soft wave.”
“There are so many bad things out there,” she said. “I enjoy my hair. I don’t think too much about it.”