Oakland salon owner Patricia Davis leans over her client to get a better angle on the flat iron that's clamped to her hair. Steam rises up from the woman's hair and a spinning fan above spreads the steam throughout the room and out the windows. Sometimes, formaldehyde gas, a known carcinogen, is in that steam. And if that product is called "Brazilian Blowout," then formaldehyde is definitely in there ... despite the fact that it says "formaldehyde-free."
In a recent settlement agreement with the California Attorney General, GIB, the company that makes the popular Brazilian Blowout hair straightening treatment, will drop the claim that they're formaldehyde-free. They also have to add a caution label to their product.
"California laws protect consumers and workers and give them fair notice about the health risks associated with the products they use," said Attorney General Harris. "This settlement requires the company to disclose any hazard so that Californians can make more informed decisions."
But salon owner Davis says the controversy is overblown. "I think it's much ado about nothing," she says as she continues flat-ironing her client's hair.
Davis has been straightening hair at First Impressions Hair Designs in downtown Oakland for over 20 years. She says most hair-straightening treatments have one thing in common: they emit smoke. So regardless of whether or not a product contains formaldehyde, or any other of the host of toxins in hair products, she says a salon owner must always get the smoke out of their salon.
"It can cause your eyes to burn and probably your skin to burn," Davis said. "Absolutely. But only without the proper ventilation and the circulation of air within your salon."
Davis points to two fans running in the room. She said she's never had health problems as long as she followed the guidelines [PDF] of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on proper ventilation. "So even if it has a [label saying] ‘caution: formaldehyde in it,’ basically I’m like, 'And? We already have smoke in our salons.'”
Davis notes that ethnic hair salons have used hair straightening treatments with toxic chemicals for decades. She believes the reason the FDA is now receiving complaints may be because hair-straightening treatments have become popular outside of ethnic salons. "[Ethnic salons] know all about the need for ventilation," Davis says. "My point is as white-oriented salons become more familiar with strong chemicals, they are more challenged to not overlook the ventilation issues."
But Renee Sharpe, a scientist and the California director of the Environmental Working Group, or EWG, says all salon owners should be concerned. The EWG did a study on formaldehyde in hair products and say their reports clearly show that some salon workers were having negative health effects.
"People have really different sensitivities to chemicals. So what is fine for one person may not be fine for another person. Do you really want to have a product on the market where OSHA is saying that you have to follow all these precautions? Ultimately that means that product is toxic and shouldn’t remain on the market."
Sharpe says while the EWG welcomes the California Attorney General's decision, it's only a first step. They want the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban all formaldehyde beauty products. Sharpe says the EWG filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the FDA and got back scores of consumer complaints about hair products containing formaldehyde.
"We got back so many records of people complaining of nausea, of vomiting, of hair loss, of actually scalp burns, skin burns. There’s a huge volume of consumer experiences with this product that shows that this is dangerous." Indeed, these are all commonly known side effects of formaldehyde exposure.
Sharpe says EWG’s research shows that there are sixteen other companies that make hair-straightening products that contain formaldehyde, but many still claim to be formaldehyde-free. But you may find the ingredient methylene glycol, which Sharpe says is formaldehyde in solution. This was the case with Brazilian Blowout.
"People have this perception that it’s just about Brazilian Blowout when it’s really this much wider class of products," she said. "And it’s not just California, of course. This is an issue that is nationwide."
As part of the settlement, the makers of Brazilian Blowout must send warning letters to salon owners using their products, make changes to their website, and pay $600,000 in fines. In a statement they wrote, "We believe the settlement reached with Attorney General Harris represents a fair and equitable resolution."
This post was updated to include Ms. Davis' views about ethnic vs. white-oriented salons' approaches to ventilation of hair straightening products.