Published: April 2011
Frequently Asked Questions:
- How can I report adverse reactions and symptoms to FDA?
- What is formaldehyde, and how does it affect human health?
- How do Brazilian Blowout and other formaldehyde-based hair straighteners work?
- Besides some hair straighteners, where else might I be exposed to formaldehyde?
- Is formaldehyde allowed in hair straighteners in other countries?
- Why do some people have reactions to these products, while others don’t?
- What are common symptoms that clients and stylists using these straightening products may experience?
- Why isn’t the formaldehyde always listed on the product label?
- Is there a safe level of formaldehyde in a hair-straightening product?
- How can I tell if a hair straightening products contains formaldehyde?
- If a hair-straightening product label claims to be “formaldehyde free,” is it?
- Would formaldehyde-based straighteners be safe if the client and stylist wore ventilators?
- What if my salon runs fans the whole time? Is it safe to get my hair straightened?
- I’m a salon owner. How can I be sure I protect my stylists and myself?
- Isn’t the cosmetics industry regulated to protect consumer safety?
- Who found out that these straightening products contain formaldehyde?
- Are stylists who use these products, or who work around them, at risk?
- What does EWG recommend to straighten hair instead?
- What happens during a Brazilian Blowout or other formaldehyde-based process?
- Is there any chemical hair straightener that’s safe to use?
- What other hair-care products should I avoid?
- What does EWG recommend be done to make hair straighteners safer for clients and stylists?
How can I report adverse reactions and symptoms to FDA?
EWG recommends that you make your report to the federal Food and Drug Administration rather than to the product manufacturer because the more FDA hears, the more reasons it has to take health-protective action. The agency has estimated that they receive only one of every 50 complaints that industry hears about. There are three ways to report an adverse reaction to the FDA. Here’s how:
- Report it online: [For more information, click here.]
- Download a PDF form and submit by mail: [For more information, click here.]
- Call the complaint hotline: Dial 1-800-332-1088 to request a form or call the consumer complain coordinator in your area. [For more information, click here.]
What is formaldehyde, and how does it affect human health?
The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified formaldehyde as a known carcinogen in gaseous form. The federal government concludes, formaldehyde is “reasonably expected to be a human carcinogen.” According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, formaldehyde may trigger asthma attacks in people with asthma and cause some people to develop a sensitivity.
How do Brazilian Blowout and other formaldehyde-based hair straighteners work?
When hair is coated with formaldehyde, it links together keratin strands inside the hair’s cortex, holding it straight. Heat from a flat iron speeds up the straightening action. During the process, formaldehyde vaporizes and is inhaled and it seeps into the scalp.
Besides some hair straighteners, where else might I be exposed to formaldehyde?
Some household items contain the chemical, including products made from pressboard, which is held together with adhesives that contain formaldehyde (e.g., subfloors, some furniture). EWG is not aware of other hair-care products that contain formaldehyde. Nail hardeners may contain up to 5 percent formaldehyde.
Is formaldehyde allowed in hair straighteners in other countries?
Health agencies in six countries – Australia, Ireland, Canada, France, Germany and Cyprus – have recalled formaldehyde-based hair straighteners. The U.S. government does not limit amounts of formaldehyde in hair-straightening products and has not taken action against companies using formaldehyde. Instead, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the agency responsible for cosmetic safety, has adopted a “wait-and-see” approach. According to its website, the agency is currently “working… to determine whether the products or ingredients would be likely to cause health problems under the intended conditions of use… FDA will continue to monitor this problem and will report on any new developments” (FDA 2010).
Why do some people have reactions to these products, while others don’t?
Chemical tolerance and allergic responses are often genetic. There is a wide range of exposure that would elicit a response in people. Formaldehyde is a known sensitizer, which means that repeated exposure is more likely to cause a reaction. Ultimately, whether or not a person develops a sensitivity to a chemical is determined by both genetics and environment, including previous exposures.
What are common symptoms that clients and stylists using these straightening products may experience?
Common adverse effects include eye, nose and throat irritation, breathing difficulties, headache, and allergic skin conditions or dermatitis. Over the past two years, the FDA has received at least 47 complaints of adverse reactions and injuries from salon workers and clients who used Brazilian-style straighteners. According to the EPA:
“Formaldehyde can cause watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, and difficulty in breathing in some humans exposed at elevated levels (above 0.1 parts per million). High concentrations may trigger attacks in people with asthma. There is evidence that some people can develop a sensitivity to formaldehyde. It has also been shown to cause cancer in animals and may cause cancer in humans. Health effects include eye, nose, and throat irritation; wheezing and coughing; fatigue; skin rash; severe allergic reactions. May cause cancer. May also cause other effects listed under ‘organic gases.’”
Why isn’t the formaldehyde always listed on the product label?
Simple: because manufacturers don’t want consumers to know it’s there. Fifteen of 16 companies admit to little to no formaldehyde, yet tests show their products contain substantial amounts. All 16 companies exceed safety limits set by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, an industry safety panel. Which hair straighteners come clean about their formaldehyde content? None, in EWG’s review. They manage to hide it in four ways: 1) misleading tests that intentionally detect only the tiny amount of formaldehyde gas in the product, ignoring the formaldehyde-water solution that converts to gas when heated; 2) playing name games by calling formaldehyde by uncommon chemical synonyms (e.g., methylene glycol, which is simply formaldehyde + water); 3) failing to reveal that while some products don’t actually contain formaldehyde, formaldehyde is released as a gas when hair is processed; and 4) avoiding any mention of the chemical altogether.
Is there a safe level of formaldehyde in a hair-straightening product?
No. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), an industry-funded and self-policing body, recommends that products should be “limited to 0.2% as free formaldehyde but [kept] to [a] minimum; and should not be used in products intended to be aerosolized.” A tentative conclusion by the CIR indicates that there is no safe level of formaldehyde that can be used in products that will be vaporized. The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration requires employers to list formaldehyde on worker safety materials (technically called material safety data sheets, or MSDS) when their employees handle solutions containing more than 0.1 percent formaldehyde. Many products that EWG reviewed contained formaldehyde at far higher levels than advertised.
How can I tell if a hair straightening products contains formaldehyde?
Because the companies who make these products have worked hard to keep the word “formaldehyde” off of the product label and out of sight, it isn’t easy! Most companies that manufacture keratin hair straighteners – 43 of 46 – do not disclose they have used this hazardous chemical. Government and independent laboratories have detected formaldehyde above industry-recommended safe limits in 28 of 31 (90 percent) products tested. So if you’re wondering about a brand that hasn’t been tested, odds are, formaldehyde is in that bottle.
(You can see our list of the products that have been tested – and the results – [For more information, click here.]).
If a hair-straightening product label claims to be “formaldehyde free,” is it?
Not likely. In EWG’s investigation, we found that companies are using different names – essentially to trick customers and salon owners – so they can claim their products are formaldehyde free. But the truth is formaldehyde is released from most of these products during a salon session whether or not the word “formaldehyde” appears on the label. Alternative keratin processes that are formaldehyde free are not as effective at straightening the hair and do not last as long. EWG advises people to assume that all hair-straightening products advertised to be effective for greater than 8 weeks contain formaldehyde.
Would formaldehyde-based straighteners be safe if the client and stylist wore ventilators?
No. Inhalation isn’t the only route of exposure. The scalp could still become irritated and there could still be hair loss – not to mention the other clients and stylists in the salon.
What if my salon runs fans the whole time? Is it safe to get my hair straightened?
Even if fans are set to blow formaldehyde vapors away from your face, the formaldehyde solution slathered over your scalp and neck is still a problem. Some people have severe reactions to the products, ranging from substantial hair loss to blistered skin, severe rashes and dizziness. You might not have a bad reaction the first time, but formaldehyde is a “sensitizer,” which means that allergic reactions become more likely with each successive exposure. Scientists also have found that formaldehyde can soak through the skin and may promote tumor growth.
I’m a salon owner. How can I be sure I protect my stylists and myself?
To comply with federal law, salon owners face this choice: Test air, train employees and install showers and eye wash stations, OR abandon formaldehyde-based hair straighteners.
Isn’t the cosmetics industry regulated to protect consumer safety?
Yes, there is some oversight. But the cosmetics industry is not sufficiently regulated to protect consumer health. The unfortunate reality is that the government does not currently require health studies or premarket testing for these products before they are sold.
The Cosmetics Ingredients Review (CIR), the industry’s self-policing safety panel, falls far short of compensating for the lack of FDA oversight.
- Who found out that these straightening products contain formaldehyde?
Though there has been banter online among users and some beauty bloggers in recent years, the facts came quickly to light in the mainstream media when a salon owner and stylist in Portland, Ore., got sick after using a hair straightener and contacted the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division, which investigated and conducted tests. You can get the full story in The Oregonian: [For more information, click here.]
Are stylists who use these products, or who work around them, at risk?
Yes. Because salon workers are exposed far more often than their clients, the risk is much greater. Employees can report reactions and other adverse health effects to their state occupational safety and health agency and can request anonymity. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration also is interested in receiving complaints [For more information, click here.]. The agency will follow up with the employer, who will then be required to test the salon’s air. An owner must notify employees within 15 days of receiving results. EWG recommends that salons stop using these products because they are not safe – for clients or stylists – to breathe.
What does EWG recommend to straighten hair instead?
None of the longer-lasting chemical processes passed muster with our scientists. The flat-iron process is the top choice among EWG researchers because it’s chemical-free.
Here’s how it works: Running a flat iron through blown-dry hair breaks the hair’s hydrogen bonds. It flattens hair until water or water vapor (from humidity, drizzle or the shower) penetrates the hair fiber and allows the hydrogen bonds to revert to their natural positions. You can pay a stylist or do it yourself at home. You can easily touch up your hair with a flat iron when a night’s sleep musses it up. The biggest danger is, well, the hot iron.
- What happens during a Brazilian Blowout or other formaldehyde-based process?
The first step in the hair-straightening process is to make an appointment at a salon and round up the necessary $150-$600. The smoothing process takes up to four hours. Formaldehyde-based products are advertised to last between six and 20 weeks. The process breaks the chemical bonds that hold the hair in its natural state, reshape the hair to be straight and then force the formation of new chemical bonds to hold the hair in place (QOD 2011, Brazilian Blowout 2011, Keratin Complex 2011).
The major difference between Brazilian Blowout and other products with lower formaldehyde concentrations is that Brazilian Blowout requires the customer to wait several minutes before washing hair, compared to other products that require a wait of two or more days. During the waiting time, you are not supposed to get your hair wet, or even put your hair in a ponytail.
Is there any chemical hair straightener that’s safe to use?
EWG hasn’t found a chemical hair straightener that we can recommend. Some brands claim to use chemicals that are less toxic than formaldehyde and less prone to cause allergic reactions. But these may require you to leave the product on for a day or two before rinsing, so you’re exposed to more of the chemical – you’re breathing more vapors, and more is soaking through your skin over time. Some “formaldehyde-free” products contain “formaldehyde releasers” that expose you to the chemical anyway. Most of the products we’ve reviewed don’t list their active ingredients, but almost all unlabeled products that have been tested have been found to contain substantial amounts of formaldehyde.
What other hair-care products should I avoid?
Perms and straighteners rely on chemicals to break the hair’s bonds, after which it reforms to a desired shape. You should avoid or be a very careful consumer of both perms and straighteners. We assess many of these products for safety and explain our concerns here: [For more information, click here.]. Minimize your use of dark hair dyes; many contain coal tar ingredients that have been linked to cancer in some studies. “Cold” permanent waves based on chemicals, not heated rollers, rely on some of the same chemicals used to straighten hair.
What does EWG recommend be done to make hair straighteners safer for clients and stylists?
To protect public health, EWG recommends that:
- Consumers avoid chemical hair-straightening products. [see EWG's tips]
- Salons stop offering formaldehyde-based hair straightening.
- Makers implement voluntary product recalls (FDA does not have this authority).
- The Federal Trade Commission take action against companies engaged in false marketing about their products’ content.
- OSHA enforce formaldehyde workplace standards in salons that continue to use these products.
- FDA restrict formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals in cosmetics, as has been done in Canada, the European Union and elsewhere.
Sign up to receive exclusive tips, action alerts and the latest news from Environmental Working Group