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Cosmetics Industry To Disavow Hair Straighteners

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

By David Andrews, Ph.D., EWG senior scientist

Most people are - by now - well aware that overexposure to formaldehyde is unsafe. From the FEMA trailer fiasco (remember Katrina?) to the Obama administration's recent decision to classify formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen, it's hard to not know you should avoid formaldehyde-laced products.

On June 28th, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel, a self-policing body created by the mainstream cosmetics industry in hopes of averting federal regulation, belatedly declared formaldehyde to be unsafe in "cosmetic products that will be heated." That's code for formaldehyde-based hair-straighteners, the best known of which is Brazilian Blowout. Salon workers use hot flatirons and blow dryers to force the chemical mixture to penetrate the hair, where it forms chemical bonds, allowing the hair to be reshaped stick-straight (which people are getting sick for).

EWG investigation details straightener dangers As Environmental Working Group detailed in an April 2011 report, Flat-Out Risky, the personal toll of banishing natural waves can be high. Formaldehyde hair straighteners expose salon personnel and customers to a cloud of carcinogenic, allergenic formaldehyde vapor. EWG's investigation turned up numerous complaints of hair loss, blisters, burning eyes, noses and throats, headaches and vomiting.

The Cosmetics Review Panel's conclusion that formaldehyde hair straighteners are risky is couched as tentative, pending a 60-day comment period and a September meeting to formalize the stand. This panel is not known for bold or forward-thinking action: in more than 35 years, it has only found nine chemicals unsafe for use in cosmetics. Formaldehyde's health dangers have been recognized for decades.

Despite numerous warnings about the chemical's toxic properties, in 2007, a handful of small businesses in the U.S. and overseas began making and marketing so-called "keratin treatments." That year, Allure Magazine reported its own lab tests showing that these straighteners were loaded with formaldehyde. Yet neither the industry nor the federal Food and Drug Administration made a move to disavow these products.

Big companies scramble to avert new rules Why is the cosmetics industry coming down hard on formaldehyde use? One reason might be a health hazard warning issued to salon workers last April by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (i.e., writing - very clearly- on the wall). Another might be scattered state regulatory efforts. Or the Obama adminstration's June 10 declaration that formaldehyde is a potent carcinogen. Our money is on politics. We think the mainstream industry is hustling to convince Congress as well as consumers that it can play by safety rules and discipline bad actors. Can it be a coincidence that the industry panel acted just four days after the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 was dropped in the hopper by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.). With Congress considering writing rules for cosmetics formulations, the industry's major players apparently don't want to be burdened defending the small, indefensible formaldehyde hair straightener business.

Thank you for smoking for using formaldehyde-based hair-straighteners Cast out as pariahs and rogues, three hair-straightener makers -- Cadiveu, Keratin Complex and Marcia Teixeira -- have taken a page from the playbook of the tobacco industry and formed their own trade group, the Professional Keratin Smoothing Council. According to its website this group boasts it represents "potentially one of the most lucrative categories to ever hit the industry" and to be "committed to the safety of salon professionals and consumers."

Notably absent is GIB, LLC, the Los Angeles-based maker of Brazilian Blowout, now the target of a consumer protection lawsuit by the California Attorney General's office. The council is looking for new members. You can join at and pay dues on a sliding scale from $15,000 for a manufacturer to free if you are a "consumer supporter."

The council's scientific advisor is Doug Schoon, a chemist who has consulted for the industry and argued that the hair straighteners do not contain formaldehyde but rather methylene glycol. The American Chemistry Council, the voice of the American chemical industry, has dismissed this claim as nonsense on grounds that methylene glycol is aqueous formaldehyde, and to measure the formaldehyde content you add both the gaseous and aqueous forms. The Cosmetics Review Panel agrees. FDA sees no evil, consumers left to protect themselves, again Yet the FDA remains curiously mute on the issue. At the meeting in March, FDA officials said the agency still did not yet have enough information to go after formaldehyde in hair straighteners.

If you've gotten tired of waiting for the FDA (who wouldn't?), you can look up hair straightening products in EWG's brand-by-brand safety analysis. You'll also find a handy review of all the straightening options when you decide to ditch the formaldehyde.


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