WASHINGTON – Salon workers from around the U.S. today joined the Environmental Working Group and Women’s Voices for the Earth to petition the Food and Drug Administration to ban dangerous hair straighteners that contain formaldehyde.
The petition outlines the well-documented health hazards of exposure to formaldehyde in hair-straightening products – often known as keratin treatments, or by the name of one prominent brand, Brazilian Blowout. Solutions containing liquid formaldehyde are applied to hair, which is then heated with blow dryers and straightening irons, causing the release of formaldehyde into the air, endangering not only stylists but their clients.
Formaldehyde is a carcinogen and potent allergen. The petition argues that its presence in hair-straightening and -smoothing treatments means that under the federal Drug and Cosmetics Act, such products are “adulterated” and should be banned.
“The FDA regulates chemicals at a glacial pace, even when it knows they cause harm,” said Melanie Benesh, EWG’s legislative attorney. “Since at least 2008, the agency has known about the health hazards associated with these hair-straightening products and has yet to regulate formaldehyde, failing to protect stylists and their clients.”
“Salon workers have particularly suffered with symptoms associated with these products, with many reporting long-term health problems,” said Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research for Women’s Voices for the Earth. “The health risks posed by these products deserved immediate action from the FDA when brought to the agency’s attention in 2008. Allowing salon workers and their customers to continue to be harmed by these products for more than a decade is unconscionable.”
Salon workers have reported that the application of formaldehyde hair treatments has caused difficulty breathing, eye irritation and nosebleeds. These injuries – in addition to rashes, blistering and hair loss – are associated with formaldehyde exposure.
“It’s clear: Formaldehyde should not be allowed in these products,” said Amber Garcia, executive director of WVE. “While California’s and Maryland’s laws are a significant step in eliminating this harmful exposure, what we need to truly protect salon workers is a national ban and overall stronger cosmetics regulation. We are calling on the agency in charge of cosmetic safety, which is supposed to protect the public from these harmful exposures, to remove these ingredients from the shelves for good.”
“The larger problem remains that laws governing what companies can put into products are broken,” added Garcia. “Salon professionals are repeatedly exposed to numerous toxic chemicals in the workplace, in solvents, polishes, straighteners, dyes and other beauty care products containing known allergens, carcinogens or neurological and developmental toxicants.
“People trust that the products they are using are regulated and safe, but that simply isn’t the case,” they said. “Policy changes need to be made so cancer-causing chemicals like formaldehyde aren’t allowed in the product in the first place. In the meantime, the FDA must move forward in banning this toxic ingredient."
Nations and states, including Canada, France, Ireland, California, Maryland and Oregon, have removed products with dangerous levels of formaldehyde from store shelves. In 2010, under then-Attorney General Kamala Harris, California sued Brazilian Blowout for deceptive advertising and failure to warn consumers of the presence of formaldehyde. In 2012, a settlement required Brazilian Blowout to include warnings on product labels about the release of formaldehyde gas and pay civil penalties.
In 2011, EWG first petitioned the FDA, insisting that the agency investigate the products and take appropriate action. After the FDA neglected to act or respond to the petition, in 2016 EWG and WVE sued the agency, but the lawsuit was dismissed on procedural grounds.
That same year, FDA scientists determined that using formaldehyde in hair straighteners was unsafe, and the agency started to take steps to ban the chemical. But for reasons that remain unclear, the FDA never followed through with a ban.
In 2017, the FDA issued a partial denial of the citizen petition by declining EWG’s request to require warning labels on hair-straightening products containing formaldehyde. The agency promised to continue investigating whether it should regulate formaldehyde but has yet to take action.
“The science shows that exposure to formaldehyde is linked to a multitude of health problems, and the FDA has received numerous reports from consumers and workers who have been harmed using these products,” said Benesh. “It’s long past time that the FDA ban this ingredient from hair-smoothing treatments.”
Media note: Salon workers are available for interviews. Contact Beth Conway at WVE or Monica Amarelo at EWG to arrange interviews.
Quotes from salon workers
Emily Baedeker, salon professional in Alameda, Calif.:
I suffered from intense migraines every time a keratin treatment was performed at the salon where I was working. I was never taught about the potential harm of the ingredients that are in the products marketed to hairstylists and clients. Once I realized it, I did a ton of research and only then did I learn how much these chemicals were putting my health at risk. It blew my mind because I always thought the purpose of the FDA was to protect us from harm.
Now I can’t work in a salon with other stylists because I have no control over the products they use. I find that most of the mainstream brands used in salons contain chemicals known to cause harm. Women are told they need to change their appearance to be more attractive and then the products we are expected to use to obtain these beauty ideals are literally making us sick.
And salon workers are the most at risk. Most salon workers are underpaid, overworked and don’t have medical benefits. Our jobs are making us sick and we don’t even know it. It’s a huge problem that is disproportionately affecting women and people of color.
Kristi Ramsburg, a professional stylist in Wilmington, N.C.:
I used to specialize in straight hair treatments and have been plagued with health issues, from short-term to long-term problems. Within the last four years I have had my gall bladder, ovaries, tubes and appendix removed. The week before my latest health attack – which included stomach pain, vomiting, nausea and fluid retention – I had done four straightening services with keratin products. I try to spend no longer than necessary in the salon. I spend any breaks or processing outside whenever possible. Something more has got to be done. The FDA must do more to protect workers like me.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment. Its mission is to empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Learn more at www.ewg.org.
Women’s Voices for the Earth is a national environmental health organization that works to amplify women’s voices to eliminate toxic chemicals that harm our health and communities. Learn more at www.womensvoices.org.