Published: April 2011

Brands that hide formaldehyde

The chemical name game

EWG has investigated 16 companies that make hair-straightening products with high formaldehyde content. All 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.

15 of 16 brands admit to little to no formaldehyde. Tests show their products contain substantial amounts.

Companies whose claims and tests do not match include Brazilian Blowout, Keratin Express, KeraGreen, Tahe and R&L. The 16th company, Goleshlee, admits on its website that its product contains formaldehyde but omits the toxic chemical from its online ingredient list.

Can hair straighteners get away with the claim “formaldehyde free?”

Name games

Leading hair straighteners, including Brazilian Blowout, claim that formaldehyde mixed with water creates a new chemical, methylene glycol.  That is like saying that sweet tea does not contain sugar. In fact, when you purchase straight formaldehyde from a chemical company, you are actually buying a formaldehyde-water mixture. Over time, if exposed to air, the formaldehyde will off-gas, in other words, reverting to a gas, its natural state at room temperature.

When its scientists conduct risk assessments, the Environmental Protection Agency calls this formaldehyde/water mixture a “pool of free formaldehyde” (EPA 2010B). The American Chemistry Council says the scientific community widely considers methylene glycol to be “formaldehyde in solution” for the purpose of determining a product’s formaldehyde content (ACC 2010). The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s formaldehyde regulations cover formaldehyde gas and “its solutions, and materials that release formaldehdye” (OSHA 1992).

Some makers of hair straighteners  - Brazilian Blowout, Cadiveu, Global Keratin and Marcia Teixeira – make the misleading claim that methylene glycol is not formaldehyde.  Altogether, four companies list “methylene glycol” on their websites or worker safety materials.

 

Misleading tests

Cadiveu and Brazilian Blowout bolster their low-formaldehyde claims by analyzing only the tiny amounts of formaldehyde gas in their products.  They ignore the products’ formaldehyde-water solution, even though some of it is transformed to gas when hair coated with the product is heated by a straightening iron.  That explains why Cadiveu reports formaldehyde levels of 0.0002 percent, when Heath Canada found it to contain 7 percent formaldehyde (Cadiveu 2011, Health Canada 2010C).

 

Other names

At least two companies disguise formaldehyde with obscure names known only to chemists – and not many of them.  For example, Keratin Express  says its hair straighteners “contain an aldehyde” (Keratin Expres 2011).  Tests show up to 1.2 percent formaldehyde in its products. Bravo Biocare’s product, Organic Thermo Fusion – Brazilian Keratin Treatment, describes formaldehyde as “morbicid acid” (Bravo Biocare 2011).

 

Formaldehyde releasers

Some companies use chemicals that are not, strictly speaking, formaldehyde but that break down to formaldehyde and release the chemical into the air when they are heated. Coppola says its hair straightener contains a “bonded aldehyde” that, when heated, decomposes and binds to the hair (Copolla 2010).   Hot vapors steaming off  heated hair as the chemical coating breaks apart would test positive for formaldehyde.  Trichovedic, an Australian company that markets HydroSpa products, sidestepped regulations and reformulated to a formaldehyde-free product that now uses formaldehyde-releasing chemicals after product testing found formaldehyde.

 

Silence

IBS Beauty and Spazzola are mum about their use of formaldehyde. EWG researchers found no formaldehyde claims one way or the other, on either company’s website or media reports.

The vast majority of products surveyed by EWG – 64 of 95 – have not been tested for formaldehyde.  Most companies that manufacture keratin hair straighteners – 43 of 46 – do not disclose they have used this hazardous chemical.

Government and indepedent laboratories have detected formaldehyde above industry-recommended safe limits in 28 of 31 products tested. So if you are wondering about a brand that has not been tested, odds are formaldehyde is in that bottle.

It is not just customers who are being hoodwinked. Misleading claims help manufacturers and salons avoid OSHA regulations that require 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.

 

TABLE: 15 of 16 companies claim little to no formaldehyde when tests show their products contain substantial amounts

Company Claim Testing Reference
Brazilian Blowout Prior to [2/13/2011]: “CONTAINS NO FORMALDEHYDE!” As of [3/1/2011]: There is no mention of the word formaldehyde on the website or the material safety data sheet that continues to list Methylene Glycol. Formaldehyde levels  up to 11.8% Oregon OSHA 2010A, Oregon OSHA 2010B, IMB 2010A, IMB 2010B, Fisher 2007, Health Canada 2010B
Coppola In addition to the Keratin, our formula includes Timonacic acid, a benign antioxidant patented in France which is part of an aldehyde group that is used in hair products and acts as an organic preservative… The difference between Brazilian straightening companies that add free formaldehyde as an ingredient and Keratin Complex’s bonded aldehydes is that the latter is not harmful. Formaldehyde levels up to 2.3% ACCC 2010, AFSSAPS 2010, Columbia Analytical Services 2010, FDA FOIA 2010, Health Canada 2010C, IMB 2010A, IMB 2010B, Oregon OSHA 2010B, RAPEX 2010
Marcia Teixeira Methylene glycol, which does not appear on the FDA’s official list of prohibited cosmetic ingredients, is the ingredient in our treatments that will produce a trace level of formaldehyde vapor when high heat is applied. For that reason, we can state that formaldehyde is not an ingredient in our treatments, but, we cannot, and have never claimed that they are formaldehyde free. Formaldehyde levels up to 3.4% (potentially up to 5.87%) ACCC 2010, AFSSAPS 2010, Columbia Analytical Services 2010, FDA FOIA 2010, Health Canada 2010C, Irish NCA 2010, Oregon OSHA 2010B, Fisher 2007
Global Keratin Since the inception of Global Keratin the company has been in full compliance with all regulations worldwide and never made any false claims. In our old formulas Global Keratin used Methylene Glycol (CAS: 463-57-0) in our products. Formaldehyde levels up to 4.4% Columbia Analytical Services 2010, Health Canada 2010C, IMB 2010A, IMB 2010B
Silkening Technologies No formaldehyde, no unpleasant fumes or odours. Just frizz-free, beautiful hair that stays smooth and manageable for months.  (Canadian website) Formaldehyde level of 2.8% Health Canada 2010C
IBS Beauty i-Straight (Also known as Love-Straight), is the safest and most effective system for straightening the different types, conditions, and textures of light curls to the most stubborn kinky hair type. Formaldehyde level of 2.3% Health Canada 2010C
Cadiveu Before Cadiveu USA entered into its Distribution Agreement with Cadiveu Brazil, we were assured that Cadiveu’s chemists were not relying on formaldehyde in their formulas. To confirm this, we hired an independent lab to test the products thoroughly. The results of this test confirmed that the formula does not contain formaldehyde as a functional ingredient in the hair smoothing process. As a result we felt confident that we were offering a safe product, which is our primary concern. 

Cadiveu’s panel of experts explains, “Formaldehyde is a gas and therefore cannot be added to a cosmetic as an ingredient. In fact, Formaldehyde has never been a cosmetic ingredient. Most test methods commonly used, are not suitable for measuring Formaldehyde in water-based cosmetic products. Formaldehyde is extremely unlikely in a water-based cosmetic product to exist beyond 0.005%.”

Formaldehyde level of 7% Health Canada 2010C
R & L “None of our products contain any fomaldehyde. They are all fomaldehyde FREE.” Formaldehyde level > 0.2% IMB 2010A, IMB 2010B
Tahe Formol Free Formaldehyde level > 0.2% IMB 2010A, IMB 2010B
Brazilan Gloss Keratin treatment does not make use of any harsh chemicals.  … At-home kits for keratin treatments are also available. The price for at-home kits starts from $250. 

For getting this treatment done, always consult a professional stylist. Knowledge about this treatment in advance can also help you in making a smarter choice. If the treatment is done properly, it will leave even the most rough hair look smooth and very easy to style.

Precautions:

Whether you get this treatment done at a salon or use an at-home kit, make sure that that keratin product you use contains less than 2% formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde level up to 7.3% Columbia Analytical Services 2010, Oregon OSHA 2010B
Keratin express The current Keratin Express formula contains no known formaldehyde or formaldehyde donors. To confirm this, we had an independent lab conduct tests to measure any detectable formaldehyde both at room temperature and when heated to 450 degrees for five minutes. The testing confirmed no formaldehyde with the exception of a trace amount (.00017%), attributable to possible residual from other product filling or cleaning on our production line. Formaldehyde level of 1.2% Oregon OSHA 2010B
QOD Unlike formaldehyde-based keratin treatments, QOD’s Brazilian Keratin products do not contain industrially manufactured raw formaldehyde. Instead, we have invested ten years of research in a patented process that mimics the effects of formaldehyde, and is readily accepted by the FDA. Still, we choose not to market our products as “formaldehyde free.” This is usually a disingenuous marketing gimmick, and potentially even harmful. Formaldehyde level up to 3.5% Oregon OSHA 2010B, FDA FOIA 2010
KeraGreen Our exclusive formulation – non toxic, formaldehyde free, rich with organic and natural ingredients – sets us apart from all other keratin hair treatments in the market and makes us relevant in a time when Green is in! Formaldehyde level of 1.6% Oregon OSHA 2010B
Simply Smooth American Culture Hair “No! This is formaldehyde free.” Formaldehyde level up to 0.93% Columbia Analytical Services 2010
Goleshlee In the FAQ section of the Goleshlee website it is stated that the products contain 2% formaldehyde.  No information on the keratin product pages and no mention of formaldehyde is given in the product ingredient lists. Formaldehyde level  > 0.6% AFSSAPS 2010
Spazzola Progressiva No information about the use of formaldehyde is providied. Formaldehyde level  > 0.6% AFSSAPS 2010

Who says formaldehyde is in the bottle

Many experts debunk hair straightener makers’ claims that the formaldehyde-water solution “methylene glycol”  is not formaldehyde:

American Chemistry Council

The chemical industry trade group’s formaldehyde panel, which represents the “producers, users, and suppliers of formaldehyde and formaldehyde products,” takes the position that “the scientific community widely considers methylene glycol as ‘formaldehyde in solution.’ Thus, both formaldehyde gas and formaldehyde reacted in water determine the formaldehyde content of a product” (ACC 2010).

Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration

This Oregon state agency asserts that “a hyper-technical argument over appropriate chemical nomenclature does not alter the applicable workplace health and safety requirements, nor should it be allowed to disguise the risks” (Oregon OSHA, 2010B).

Occupational Safety and Health Administration

OSHA’s workplace safety standards for formaldehyde cover “all occupational exposures to formaldehyde, i.e. from formaldehyde gas, its solutions, and materials that release formaldehyde” (OSHA 1992).

Environmental Protection Agency

In the EPA draft risk assessment for formaldehyde, the agency describes the mechanism by which formaldehyde solutions result in free formaldehyde exposures. It says that in a living organism, free formaldehyde leaves the water solution and binds with serum proteins and cellular components” (EPA 2010B).

EPA uses the term “formaldehyde” to cover both free formaldehyde gas and methylene glycol, or formaldehyde solution, on its inventory of chemicals manufactured or imported into the U.S. (EPA 2010A).

Academia

Dr. Alan Schusterman, a chemistry professor at Reed College, writes, “if I am exposed to methylene glycol, will I be exposed to formaldehyde? The answer to this is unequivocally YES. [The] equilibrium, Formaldehyde + Water = Methylene Glycol, is completely reversible at room temperature and methylene glycol spontaneously decomposes to make formaldehyde + water.  I can think of no simpler way to expose a person to formaldehyde than to expose [him] to a methylene glycol solution” (Shusterman 2010).

Health agencies

The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, Health Canada, Irish Medicines Board, French Agency for the Safety of Health Products, and agencies in Germany and Cyprus have collectively recalled 22 products (ACCC 2010, AFSSAPS 2010, Health Canada 2010B, Health Canada 2010C, IMB 2010A, IMB 2010B, Irish NCA 2010, RAPEX 2010).

Cosmetics industry

The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), an industry-funded and self-policing body, originally assessed the safety of formaldehyde in 1984 and re-reviewed its safety in 2003. Its current recommendation is that use 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” (CIR 2010A). In 2010 the international nomenclature committee of the Personal Care Products Council added methylene glycol to a list of cosmetic ingredients separate from formaldehyde (PCPC et al. 2010).

The panel reached tentative conclusions in its March 2011 meeting. The chemical name “formaldehyde” was replaced with “formaldehyde/methylene glycol.” The CIR also determined that formaldehyde should not be used in products intended to be aerosolized to include products that would produce formaldehyde/methylene glycol vapor or gas under conditions of use. This conclusion would effectively prohibit the use of these ingredients in hair-straightening products at any level (CIR 2011B).

 

Name games: What is methylene glycol? Understanding the chemistry

A little background on the chemistry of formaldehyde goes a long way in understanding the fallacy of hair-straighteners’ “formaldehyde-free” boasts.

Formaldehyde is a gas at room temperature (NIST, 2008).  To make handling easier it is usually mixed with water and sold as a liquid labeled “formalin” or “formaldehyde solution.”  A molecule of water reacts with a molecule of formaldehyde to form methylene glycol (also referred to as methanediol, formaldehyde monohydrate, or formaldehyde in water). Very little free formaldehyde remains as a gas in solution, but the reaction is fast and completely reversible.  For every molecule of free formaldehyde that remains in the solution, there will be 1,820 molecules of methylene glycol (Dasgupta 1986).  If an analyst measures only the gaseous formaldehyde in solution the result will be 1,820 lower than the actual amount of available formaldehyde, because methylene glycol reverts to free formaldehyde almost immediately upon contact with air or skin.

When free formaldehyde evaporates from solution or reacts with skin,  the remaining methylene glycol solution will release more free formaldehyde gas nearly instantaneously.  This process will repeat until the methylene glycol is completely gone.  Heat from hair driers and flat irons speeds the reaction.  A hair-straightening session will release significant amounts of formaldehyde gas.

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