Brazilian Smoothing Treatments – Continuing Controversy



When  reports of  unsafe levels of formaldehyde in Brazilian Blowout’s smoothing solution first surfaced I was surprised in a sense but not overwhelmingly. Starting in 2006 we had been researching this family of smoothing  treatments because of its great potential but discovered that it is not without controversy and possibly risk. Early in 2007 there  was a death by asphyxiation of a woman attempting her own  treatment. Apparently the working theory was that gaseous formaldehyde was released by heat  when the woman showered after leaving a formaldehyde based solution in her hair for four days. Anvisa, Brazil’s National Health Surveillance Agency investigated but could not conclude unequivocally that the treatment was to blame. Truthfully some of the claims and formulations offered at the time did not give us confidence but it was clear that the manufacturers involved were striving to formulate or reformulate their products so that they were safe, safer, or if possible completely free of formaldehyde, and with Brazilian smoothing treatments this is where things get tricky.

Brazilian smoothing treatments are a category of hair treatments of which Brazilian Blowout ™ is one of many brands. Generally in these treatments formaldehyde, or a similar aldehyde is required to relax the hair shaft and facilitate the protein binding required to achieve all that soft lustrous straightness. Because of the undesirable health implications of formaldehyde the formulators of these products have to ask a question –   is there a way to deliver this aldehyde in a minimized dose at precisely the moment that it is needed i.e. when the hair is being flat ironed and not before or after?  Very definitely a tricky task for  the formulating chemists that develop these products because ideally the smoothing solution has to be stable at application, fabulously active at 450 F and then completely stable again at room temperature once the treatment is complete. Now I’m going to put this out there, but not too far out there and suggest that the formulators of these products ( Brazilian Blowout and others) have attempted to create a donor scheme whereby the aldehyde is released only by the heat of the flat iron. There are a number of compounds that can donate formaldehyde, many of them are used in cosmetics as preservatives and release formaldehyde only at very low concentrations. Could Brazilian Blowout and perhaps some others  have created such a formulation and therefore feel justified in claiming that their product is formaldehyde free? Yes they could since strictly speaking formaldehyde would not be a component of their formulation and would only be generated during application via the heat of the iron. However  that sort of legalistic interpretation of  the words “contains no formaldehyde”  does deserve to be castigated … but in fact the world of chemistry is built on a foundation of reactions for which an intermediary exists only for a moment, and neither before nor after the reaction is complete.

Of course the public is not being helped by the fact the actual formulation of these solutions are trade secrets and are not required to be published.  If anything ultimately  I believe this reluctance on the manufacturers end will ultimately do them more harm than good. If there are mechanisms within the formulations that are yielding the results published then the manufacturers need to properly provide that information to the health agencies. Mainstream media has given this issue the typical keyword loaded, skin deep treatment and I don’t think that ultimately serves the public very well. The frustration at Brazilian Blowout is palpable, their marketing people might have some answering to do but they don’t seem to be acting guilty – for the better part they are acting misunderstood. Definitely there is an air of vindication at BB since the Occupational Safety & Health Administration has done a series of in salon air quality tests, and has found the levels of formaldehyde released to be well within guidelines.

So what went wrong & why is it some stylists had adverse reactions while other salons reported nothing? Well let me count the possibilities. First off it is well known that some individuals are highly sensitive to formaldehyde as an allergen, certainly there are some fumes generated during the flat ironing stage. Further it is possible that if the client is being processed in a confined space, too much solution is being used, or if there is inadequate ventilation, these fumes would be concentrated enough to irritate the mucous membranes of the eye, nose, throat or lungs. And then there is the testing.

Here is where things get truly confusing for stylists and consumers alike. Most of us are not chemists, and have no awareness of the different national or international standards for testing chemicals within products or the environment. To say that it is exacting science is an understatement. In this case there seems to be some contention about the method of testing being used by the Orgeon OSHA to determine  the actual formaldehyde levels. A bit to my surpise there seems  to be some reluctance amongst the health agencies involved  to differentiate between free formaldehyde and methylene glycol – the compound formed when formaldehyde dissolves in water. Strictly speaking the two terms should not be used interchangeably since the formaldehyde component of methylene glycol is less than 5%. What is actually being tested and how the tests are being conducted is now the subject of legal action in the U.S. by Brazilian Blowout against the OSHA – the Oregon Division of that agency being the labs that originally reported finding high formaldehyde levels.  So who do we believe?  I’m inclined  to believe our health agencies,  but the more  I investigate the less sure I am that the testing being  done is necessarily measuring something that coorelates with real exposure levels. Of great interest to me and I think the whole industry on both sides of the border is to learn which testing methodology has been used by Health Canada to gain their data, which recently reported high formaldehyde levels in a wide series of Brazilian type smoothing products. Stay tuned I have contacted Health Canada on the topic of which testing methods have yielded their results and hopefully soon I’ll be able to report to you on that front.

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