Straighten This: Government Warns of Health Risks from Hair Straighteners

By Lee Ann Brown, EWG Press Secretary

Straighten your hair? Better read this - and start loving those curls!

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." EWG Finds Health Problems Nationwide from Popular Treatment 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 2011 investigation - which you can peruse now - 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  • Unpublished FDA documents obtained by EWG showing dozens of reports of injuries and adverse effects for salon workers and clients.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.
EWG Senior Scientist Dave Andrews, lead researcher on EWG's report, denounced the product:
"Deceptive marketing of formaldehyde-laced hair smoothing products is deplorable. 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."

"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. You can help by reporting any adverse reactions to the U.S. FDA; too often consumers report problems to product manufacturers only, leaving the regulating agencies with an unrealistically low sense of product problems. What's a hair-straightening person to do? EWG is urging anyone wanting straighter hair to consider the chemical-free method - a manual blowout with a blow dryer and hot iron. And read our report if you need any convincing. Why are we so strongly opposed to this treatment? As the beauty industry saying goes, because you're worth it.
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