As a girl, I dreamt of a magic potion that would transform my frizzy, unpredictable mane into the silky, shiny tresses I saw in all the magazines. But now that the potion is within my reach, I’ve grown up enough to know it comes with serious strings attached.
A few weeks ago, I was complaining to my stylist about the havoc that humid summers wreak on my hair, and she suggested I try a wonderful new treatment. A “Keratin Complex Blowout” would smooth out my hair, she said, and give me that “salon look” at home with only 10 minutes of blowdrying! “It lasts three months, and it’s totally safe—no harsh chemicals!” she exclaimed.
Her words made me shiver. As an employee of the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, I have noticed the recent reports describing stylists suffering eye irritation, breathing problems, even nosebleeds as a result of the formaldehyde content in some of these hair smoothing (aka “Brazilian Blowout”) treatments. I knew that OSHA issued a Hazard Alert last April warning salon workers about the dangers of formaldehyde and urging them to protect themselves against this colorless but toxic gas. OSHA has recently updated this alert in response to new enforcement activities.
Some smoothing treatments involve painting a formaldehyde-laden solution onto the hair and sealing in the powerful chemicals with a straightening iron. Stylists can risk their health when inhaling formaldehyde into their lungs and splashing products onto their skin. The liquid can cause skin rashes and itching, and the gas released from the product, especially when heat is applied, can irritate the eyes and nose, causing asthma-like symptoms. Formaldehyde is also a carcinogen.
Even worse, some hair smoothing products are mislabeled “formaldehyde free,” leading salon workers like my stylist to believe these formulas are safe and contain no harsh chemicals. In September of 2010 Oregon-OSHA tested a sample of a hair smoothing product that actually contained up to 11.8% formaldehyde — more than one hundred times the limit at which OSHA requires that formaldehyde be listed on the label and in product information — yet, the bottle was labeled “formaldehyde-free.”
One year later, hair smoothing products with formaldehyde are still made and distributed, sometimes without informing salons and workers about the dangers. This August, the FDA issued a warning letter to the importer and distributor of Brazilian Blowout for mislabeling the product “formaldehyde-free” or “no formaldehyde,” when in fact it contains methylene glycol, the liquid form of formaldehyde.
Two weeks ago, OSHA cited two distributors of smoothing treatments for failing to communicate information about hazards to workers and users, including stylists, fining each company $12,600. A formaldehyde-based hair treatment manufacturer was also cited and fined $9,000 for failing to inform workers of the risks of chemical exposure and failing to provide an eyewash station in the workplace.
OSHA’s investigations of salons using certain smoothing treatments have uncovered airborne formaldehyde levels that exceed safe limits for workers. Most hair salon owners didn’t even know that hair smoothing products can endanger workers because manufacturers, importers, and distributors omitted hazard warnings on product labels and Material Safety Data Sheets.
Thankfully, I’ve heard that some salon owners are switching to truly formaldehyde-free solutions, and that others are now equipping their salons with ventilation systems and providing their workers with respirators and safety training. The next time I go in for a trim, I’ll ask the salon owner how she is protecting her workers from formaldehyde exposure, and I’ll tell my stylist to watch for any of the following ingredients, all of which are other names for formaldehyde or release formaldehyde during the straightening process:
- methylene glycol
- methylene oxide
- formic aldehyde
- CAS Number 50-00-0
- timonacic acid (aka thiazolidinecarboxylic acid)
At around $300 a pop, it’s no wonder my stylist enthusiastically offers this hair smoothing treatment, but she shouldn’t have to choose between her health and her paycheck. Maybe we all deserve a little pampering at the salon on occasion, but salon workers are entitled to a safe and healthy workplace every single day. You know how hard it is to find a stylist you can trust with your hair; shouldn’t our stylists be able to trust that their jobs won’t make them sick?
The author, Rebecca Bilbro, is a Presidential Management Fellow at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.