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EWG Investigation: Hair Straighteners Release Potent Carcinogen

For Immediate Release: 
Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Obama Administration Moves to Curb Toxic Salon Service

Washington, D.C. – The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued a health hazard alert to salons nationwide about the risks that popular hair straightening products, including well-known Brazilian Blowout, pose to salon workers and customers. The agency warned that formaldehyde – a common ingredient in many of the treatments – can cause nose and lung irritation and increases the risk of cancer.

Following several state investigations and international actions to restrict or ban these products, the agency, a branch of the U.S. Department of Labor, began a nationwide investigation of complaints by salon owners and workers of symptoms associated with the use of chemical straightening procedures, often described as keratin-based or “Brazilian.”

Environmental Working Group’s own investigation of chemical hair straightening treatments, the largest published to date, turned up numerous complaints of hair loss, blisters, burning eyes, noses and throats, headaches and vomiting in women who had been given or had applied Brazilian-style straightening treatments.

EWG’s investigation found that many top salons nationwide offer the treatments despite acknowledging concerns over possible health consequences. And some manufacturers have played a common cosmetics-industry name game by touting formulations that were claimed to be formaldehyde-free, claiming that they relied instead on methylene glycol as a miracle alternative.

EWG’s researchers, as well as scientists at the American Chemistry Council and the Personal Care Products Council, have pointed out that methylene glycol is simply formaldehyde mixed with water. EWG believes that formaldehyde-based products should be taken off the market.

EWG’s investigation includes:

  • Unpublished FDA documents obtained by EWG showing dozens of reports of injuries and adverse effects for salon workers and clients.
  • A survey of top salons nationwide showing widespread use of formaldehyde-based hair straighteners.
  • Scientific review for all hair straighteners on the market with EWG’s tips of safest options.
  • First-ever database of more than 100 hair straightening products, including active ingredients and marketing claims.

“Deceptive marketing of formaldehyde-laced hair smoothing products is deplorable,” said EWG senior scientist David Andrews. “Chemicals known to cause cancer shouldn’t be hidden ingredients in any products that people inhale or apply to their skin.”

“While not as common as a haircut, these straightening procedures happen in salons across the country each day, exposing workers and customers to unnecessary levels of formaldehyde that could put them at increased risk of adverse health effects including cancer later in life,” added Andrews.

“Canada pulled Brazilian Blowout off the market six months ago, and our federal agencies are just now getting around to warning people of the health risks,” said Stacy Malkan, who helped found the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics with Environmental Working Group and other organizations. “It’s clear that we need a better safety system, where products are assessed for safety before they cause harm.”

Six countries have recalled straighteners based on formaldehyde, but these products are still completely legal in the United States. Environmental Working Group is petitioning the federal Food and Drug Administration to regulate the use of formaldehyde in hair straighteners and require these products to include warning labels. Some popular manufacturers are reformulating as news of formaldehyde in their products spreads.

EWG is urging anyone wanting straighter hair to consider the chemical-free method – a manual blowout with a blow dryer and hot iron.

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EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment. http://www.ewg.org