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Why do blowouts take so long to fix?

Friday, October 29, 2010

By Jane Houlihan and Thomas Cluderay

Blowouts can be as diverse as a shredded rear tire on a busy interstate, BP's infamous spew of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, or, we've recently learned, a hair-straightening concoction from California-based Brazilian Blowout, a product that some call a "life changer" but that turns out to be laden with formaldehyde.

Salon workers and people seeking straighter hair, read up. Formaldehyde is a potent irritant, can spur allergic reactions and may cause cancer over the long term. Laboratory tests turned up lots of the toxin in Brazilian Blowout, even though it's marketed as "formaldehyde free."

The government has us covered, right? You might think that the federal government is ferreting out products like this, mislabeled and laced with hazardous chemicals in amounts far above what the industry itself considers safe (in this case, up to 60 times industry's recommended 0.2 percent limit). You might think regulators would keep products like this out of stores and salons through tight safety standards and rigorous inspections and testing.

But no. The formaldehyde in Brazilian Blowout was uncovered the hard way, by a salon worker in Oregon who'd been sickened by the mixture. She notified her state occupational health agency, which did the tests that exposed the truth. The samples they tested were up to 10.6% formaldehyde.

During the 90-minute hair-straightening process, toxic formaldehyde likely escapes into the air from the goopy mixture that's applied to every strand of hair when the salon worker blows her customer's hair dry and then presses it with a hot flat iron. When legal isn't safe Sure, formaldehyde is legal at any level in personal care products sold in the U.S. -- legal, but clearly not safe.

You might hope that the federal government - in this case the Food and Drug Administration, which has authority over cosmetics safety - would be following up to get these formaldehyde-laden hair relaxers off the market.

But no.

The FDA says it will "continue to monitor this problem and will report on any new developments." In contrast, the Canadian government is already working to halt distribution of Brazilian Blowout and warns on its website:

"Stylists who use Brazilian Blowout treatments should immediately stop using the affected product."

If the FDA won't act, EWG will The Environmental Working Group cited the Brazilian Blowout case in a recent letter to the FDA, urging it to put greater focus on cosmetics safety as it develops a new five-year strategic plan. We also submitted two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests about this product in November, 2010: one to the U.S. FDA and another to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

In this country, blowouts take a long time to fix, whether the stakes are an ecosystem or the health of salon workers.

Jane Houlihan is senior vice president for research at Environmental Working Group; Thomas Cluderay is EWG's Stabile Law Fellow.


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