Video: Hair straightening chemicals can pose health risks

Image: Jennifer Dooley, of Romeoville, Ill., had her Brazilian Blowout hair style done two months ago
Nathan Weber  /  for
Jennifer Dooley's hair was transformed from frizz-prone to perfectly smooth and straight when she underwent a Brazilian Blowout two months ago. The product is labeled "formaldehyde-free" but recent tests conducted in Oregon and Canada suggest otherwise.
By contributor
updated 6/15/2011 10:04:53 AM ET 2011-06-15T14:04:53

“Suffer for beauty” has been taken to a whole new level with recent controversy surrounding a trendy hair treatment called the Brazilian Blowout.

The product, used in pricey salons, turns frizzy, unmanageable locks into the luxurious pin-straight looks made popular by celebrities like Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow.

The catch? Tests conducted by the state of Oregon determined that the product contains unsafe levels of formaldehyde — as in, embalming fluid — a known carcinogen.

But that’s not deterring some from the pursuit of fabulous wash-and-wear locks.

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“Chemicals are a way of life now,” says Stefeny Anderson, a 36-year-old event planner from Renton, Wash., who got her first Brazilian Blowout two weeks ago in an effort to tame “corkscrew curls” that frizz at the slightest hint of rain (a given in Washington state). “It’s not like you’re putting it in your hair every day.”

Introduced at salons a few years ago, the Brazilian Blowout costs about $250. But after the two-hour treatment — which involves coating the hair with the chemical, then flat-ironing it — coarse, kinky hair becomes soft, smooth and straight for two to three months. Sort of an anti-perm, the Brazilian Blowout has been touted as more effective and less time-consuming than other hair-straightening methods such as conventional relaxers, Japanese thermal processing or other keratin-based treatments (there are several available), although concerns have been raised about the product’s possible formaldehyde content in the past, when Allure magazine did an exposé.

These concerns soon dissipated, though, once the company reformulated the products and began distributing bottles labeled “formaldehyde-free.”

Oregon Health & Science University issued two public alerts after tests performed by the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration found up to 10.6 percent formaldehyde in the product (.2 percent formaldehyde is considered safe by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel).

Brazilian Blowout disputes the finding. "We have no formaldehyde in our formula," spokesperson Dana Supnick said.

In other tests, Canada's health department found up to 12 percent formaldehyde and warned people to stop using it, citing consumer complaints of “burning eyes, nose, and throat, breathing difficulties, and one report of hair loss associated with use of the product.”

According to the National Cancer Institute, formaldehyde has been classified as a known human carcinogen with research suggesting an association between formaldehyde exposure in workers and several cancers including nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia. Short-term exposure is no picnic, either; adverse effects include watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat, coughing, wheezing, nausea and skin irritation.

Health complaints from stylists who’ve performed the Brazilian Blowout on clients have prompted at least one class action lawsuit against the manufacturer. The FDA has also announced it’s received “a number of inquiries from consumers and salon professionals concerning the safety of this product” and are currently looking into the issue.

Godsend or health gamble?
Despite these hair-raising headlines, the Brazilian Blowout has proved to be such a godsend for those with frizzy, unmanageable hair that health-conscious women are left in a tangled dilemma.

Image:Jennifer Dooley
Courtesy of Jennifer Dooley
Jennifer Dooley says surviving this year's annual Jimmy Buffet concert without frizz is the true test of the Brazilian Blowout. On the left, she's at last year's show, with "curly hair as big as the stadium he played in." At this summer's show (right), Dooley's hair stayed sleek through the encore.

“I keep debating with myself,” says Jennifer Dooley, a 31-year-old hospital public affairs officer from Romeoville, Ill., who got a Brazilian Blowout two months ago. Dooley says her new stick-straight hair requires no maintenance whatsoever, as opposed to her kinky curls which made her hair look like a “football helmet” in Chicago’s humidity.  

Dooley says the true test of the Brazilian Blowout came at the end of the summer, when her formerly frizzy hair withstood eight hours of tailgating in 100-degree heat at a Jimmy Buffet concert. At last year's concert, she ended the night with "curly hair as big as the stadium he played in."

“I’d probably be doing infomercials for it if there weren’t so many concerns about it right now,” she says. She goes to a reputable salon and trusts her stylist so says when the solution was touted as “formaldehyde-free” she decided to give it a try. “But it does make you think, ‘What did they really do to my hair to make it do that?’ I know how curly it is. I’ll think twice before I’ll do it, but I wouldn’t say no to doing it again.”

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Others, like Anderson, believe the formaldehyde issue has been blown out of proportion.

“I think people tend to freak out about things and don’t know all the details and then all of the sudden, something gets banned,” she says. “It’s totally worth it. I love the way my hair looks.”

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Better safe than sorry?
Despite customer demand, Vasken Demirjian, owner of the Vasken Demirjian Salon in White Plains, N.Y., stopped offering the treatment.

“I pulled it off the menu the second I found out about the test in Oregon,” he says. “I’ll probably lose some clients but I could care less at this stage. The whole thing is alarming.”

Alarming, but perhaps not totally unexpected.

“One of my stylists said it made her eyes water when she was using it so she started wearing a mask,” he says. “When I saw her wearing that mask, I asked myself, ‘Does that look good? No.’”

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