Blowout Blowback

by Rebecca Bilbro on September 23, 2011 · 23 comments

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.

Some smoothing treatments involve painting a formaldehyde-laden solution onto the hair and sealing in the powerful chemicals with a straightening iron.

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
  • formalin
  • methylene oxide
  • paraform
  • formic aldehyde
  • methanal
  • oxomethane
  • oxymethylene
  • 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.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Contracting Tips September 23, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Great post! It’s frightening to think that stylists and their clients’ health is being put at risk without anyone’s knowledge, but it’s great to know your department is doing something to protect us. Kudos! I’m curious to find out- did the treatment your stylist offered actually contain formaldehyde?

2 Majed El Zein September 24, 2011 at 6:36 am


3 Majed El Zein September 24, 2011 at 6:36 am

Good good

4 Lisa Johnson September 24, 2011 at 12:32 pm

I really love for my hair stylist ms. lavonna to do the hair, one little triffling thing that I actually hate is that she tends to uses old dirty dry towels to wipe off the dampness from the hair, should she really do this?

5 Marcia Johnson September 26, 2011 at 8:38 am

I think the fines are too low. What’s the incentive to stop importing these dangerous chemicals when they pay next to nothing in fines? Thank you for the information regarding these products.

6 Janelle R. September 26, 2011 at 8:42 am

This was an excellent article! I have many friends who have tried tihs treatment and love it, however, I always remained hesitatant for the fear of permanent damage to my curly locks! This was an eye opening article! Thanks for sharing!

7 Whole house attic Fan September 26, 2011 at 9:32 am

It is a good sign that more and more saloons are using non Formaldehyde materials for their purpose. Though it may be bit costly but what is more important it is safe for health. I am quite sure more saloons will come to know about the the effect of Formaldehyde. And they will switch to more health friendly materials.

8 Cadouri Femei September 30, 2011 at 10:32 am

I can not understand why no one senses take action with those salons that still use those chemicals that are not worse than those who use your products? I think we should put a big warning sign in this situation that may affect thousands of people .
You do not have anyone to play with our health and even the chemicals that make us sick also our hair and scalp.

9 Belladioliva October 2, 2011 at 11:46 pm

I own my own wedding hair and bridal makeup salon. we perform all other services as well as hair staightening. I have bought some of these products in the past for use in my salon and have thought I was buying the formaldehyde-free solutions. Thanks for writing this article. Good information to know, because of this article I have switched the products I used to use and am now using formaldehyde-free solutions.

10 Keratin Hair Treatment October 4, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Very informative article.

11 Didar October 4, 2011 at 11:33 pm

Agree with you. Security in work place is very important. I afraid at this time of high inflation and high unemployment rate, the rights of workers are not fully maintained in many places. Government needs to well aware of it. They also need to facilitate alternative investment opportunities to address the unusual high unemployment rate as well.

Thanks for the important post.

12 Nancy October 11, 2011 at 3:30 am

Oh my gosh. I didn´t even now that saloones uses that. Thank you, that you’ve pointed out. I will next time when shopping eighth particular attention to formaldehyde-free products.

13 Keratin Hair Treatment October 17, 2011 at 3:48 am

Very informative site, just what I was looking for.

14 Marketing Consultant October 19, 2011 at 5:16 pm

That is really interesting, I never knew stylists did that. Who would have thought that working in a hair salon could have such an impact on the employees health?

15 Sharmilla November 15, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Well done Rebecca.

16 women's health November 20, 2011 at 8:03 am

Hey I found this website to be interesting attention.! Bookmarked!

17 Keratin Treatment January 6, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Very informative post. The list of chemicals that are other names for formaldehyde or release formaldehyde during a keratin treatment is very helpful. There’s no way most stylists would know those names without someone like you pointing it out to them.

Lara from

18 Hair Salon Fuquay Varina January 17, 2012 at 11:47 pm

Wow! I never knew those products could be so dangerous. I am a hair stylist and know that when I use these products they smell bad and kinda make you light headed when you are around them too much but I never knew I was putting myself in danger!

Does anyone know which products are safe? I’ll check what we use to see if it has any of that stuff in it. How can we be sure that they are not mislabeled though?

I’m not sure about using respirators, although that’s better than getting sick. My salon tries to maintain a certain atmosphere and stylists running around with respirators on would definitely kill the mood!

19 Susan @ Sarasota Wedding Planners January 18, 2012 at 10:54 am

Oh my goodness, what a list of toxic chemicals

-methylene glycol
-methylene oxide
-formic aldehyde
-CAS Number 50-00-0
-timonacic acid (aka thiazolidinecarboxylic acid)

Why are their not any: rules, laws governing the Salons that use these chemicals on a daily basis? I’m printing this out and going to show it to my (salon-hair) girl, she needs to know this!

20 admin January 19, 2012 at 5:26 pm

Hair Salon Fuquay Varina,

Salon owners, stylists, and other salon workers have the right know what is in the products that they are buying and using and how to protect their workers and themselves from formaldehyde exposure. Comprehensive information has been made available on OSHA’s website to help hair salons, including several brand-name products that contain formaldehyde or that can expose you to formaldehyde during use. Please visit:

In response to your questions, OSHA’s hazard alert at: states that federal OSHA and state OSHA programs continue to investigate complaints from stylists and hair salon owners about exposure to formaldehyde while using hair smoothing products such as: Brazilian Blowout (Acai Professional Smoothing Solution, Professional Brazilian Blowout Solution), Brasil Cacau Cadiveu, Keratin Complex Smoothing Therapy (Natural Keratin Smoothing Treatment, Express Blow Out, Natural Keratin Smoothing Treatment Blonde), and Marcia Teixeira (Advanced Brazilian Keratin Treatment, Extreme De-Frizzing Treatment).

Many keratin-based hair smoothing products contain formaldehyde dissolved (and chemically reacted) in water and other ingredients in the product. Because of the way the formaldehyde reacts in these products, some manufacturers, importers, or distributors might list other names for formaldehyde on product information or might claim that the product is “formaldehyde-free.” Read the label on the hair smoothing product because formaldehyde might be listed by other names such as methylene glycol, formalin, methylene oxide, paraform, formic aldehyde, methanal, oxomethane, oxymethylene, or CAS Number 50-00-0. All of these are names for formaldehyde under OSHA’s Formaldehyde standard. There are also chemicals, such as timonacic acid (also called thiazolidinecarboxylic acid) that can release formaldehyde under certain conditions, such as those present during the hair smoothing treatment process. The bottom line is that formaldehyde can be released from hair smoothing products that list any of these names on the label and workers can breathe it in or absorb it through their skin. Workers can be exposed to formaldehyde during the entire hair straightening process, especially when heat is applied (e.g. blow-drying, flat ironing).

OSHA also understands that small businesses need assistance and that’s why OSHA’s On-site Consultation Program offers free and confidential advice for employers seeking help to identify and prevent job hazards or improve their safety and health management systems. In fiscal year 2010, the program provided free assistance to more than 30,000 small businesses covering more than 1.5 million workers across the nation. For more information, visit

OSHA is here to help, so please don’t hesitate to contact the OSHA office close to you. You can find that office by calling OSHA’s toll-free hotline at 800-321-OSHA (6742)

21 Jay Gomez March 2, 2012 at 6:32 pm

My salon does 3-4 keratin treatments per day and we switched everything to KeraLuxe Safe Keratin Treatment. A company by the name of KeraLuxe has been selling the Safe Keratin Treatment which is completely different application and contains no formaldehydes. The product works much better than any other treatment I have ever tried and everyone in Boston is talking about it.

22 A Trendy Home Ventilation Fans October 25, 2012 at 11:12 am

Great topic! Most people don’t understand how dangerous prologned exposure to formaldehydes and other toxins can be. Everyone should do their part to make sure that salons and other businesses ensure that proper ventilation fans are utilized to protect their clients and employees.

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