What’s Wrong with Brazilian Keratin?

If you’re in the beauty business and you think you know what’s going on, or that this is old news and not applicable anymore, you don’t know unless you’re family with the critical updates at the bottom of this article. Just in the last few months there have been startling new developments.

Brazilian keratin was considered the miracle straightener until people started reporting the ill effects. The key focus of these concerns was formaldehyde which, obviously, can cause permanent damage when breathed or otherwise entering the body. One of the first waves of response was to create keratin treatments that could be marketed as having “no formaldehyde”. The easiest way to do this was to change the formulation slightly to use a different version of a formyl aldehyde that could be called just “aldehyde” in general or just use alternate names for formaldehyde like formulin or methylene glycol or morbicid acid in particular. In fact, just listing “aldehyde” actually made ingredient labels less informative, since aldehydes are just a group of chemical types that could include anything – including <drumroll please> formaldehyde (i.e. you can’t go out and buy aldehyde – you have to buy some specific type). Since then, though, there’s been more testing, and it turns out that whatever types of aldehydes are being included convert to either formaldehyde gas when heated (by a flat iron or blow dryer) or an equivalent formyl toxin when destabilized by sufficient heat. In other words, poison by any other name is still the same.

The local product sales rep, of course, will always blow off the science with something she’s heard or been trained to say, and it’ll always result in the stylist purchasing more product and even parroting the company’s paid “research” [like hapless Mallory here], but this is not up to the sales rep or those who teach them the marketing material – it’s up to the almighty – science is science, and we can spot the difference between verifiable facts and a trusty sales brochure. The general consensus, once you get past the marketing hype, is that all normal types of brazilian keratin treatments create formaldehyde or formyl aldehyde gas that floats around the salon and will be toxic if breathed. The marketing material of several lines make one of several misleading claims:

  1. That there is no formaldehyde in the product. This is misleading because, while technically true while cold, the ingredients in the product combine to produce toxic formaldehyde gas upon heating with a flat iron, which all brazilian keratin treatments require. These ingredients are formaldehyde releasers.
  2. That the product contains aldehydes but not formaldehyde specifically. This is misleading because formaldehyde is simply a type of aldehyde, many of which types are highly toxic (even more toxic than formaldehyde per se) and produce virtually the same carcinogenic effects when breathed – besides which, the chemical maker has failed to indicate exactly which aldehyde is in the product. Just as an example, though, one popular brand (we think it’s Brazilian Blowout) contains Glutaraldehyde, which is highly toxic [see wikipedia] and according to the CDC “is a main source of occupational asthma among health care providers”.
  3. That the product is “organic” and only uses “natural” aldehydes. This is misleading because all kinds of natural substances are toxic, including formyl aldehydes, especially when converted to a gas. Some products add in berries or mushrooms so they can say the product is ‘natural’ but that’s like saying Cherry Coke comes from cherries. They also say that formaldehyde occurs naturally – sure it does – but at radically lower levels. Sunlight occurs naturally – that doesn’t mean 10x the recommended safe level of ultraviolet won’t give you cancer.
There have even been reports of some manufacturers dealing with the aldehyde stigma by actually tampering with the material safety data sheets (MSDS), or else producing two sets of sheets – one for the government, initially, and another “cleaned up” sheet that merely ‘summarizes’ the real ones (a ‘report’ on the MSDS), and then putting that out for public consumption or sending it when asked. After all, the MDS is supposed to be the gold standard of what’s in a chemical. But first, we aren’t writing about fraud in this post, and we are unable to verify all of these claims and, second, the reporting requirements on the MSDS are actually fairly lax – you don’t even have to report the formaldehyde if it’s less than 2% (more on that soon – and 2% is crazy high, anyway). So you don’t have to tell us about the formalin even if it’s still toxic when converted to a gas (meaning you have to really be hiding something to produce a fake set of MSDS sheets), and they already allow for some generalizations (like “aldehydes”) and even omissions, in practice. We’ve heard that other companies are distracting stylists from the MSDS by claiming that they can’t share them because the product is patent pending. Frankly, if you haven’t inspected the genuine, real, and full copy of the MSDS, you have no business using the keratin in your salon. Still other companies send out only the first part of the MSDS, omitting the sheets for Exposure Controls/Personal Protection, etc.
Just an example of what you can expect in a full MSDS (this example from Coppola): “”Use protective breathing mask when using product with hot iron. Decomposition of product at high temperatures may cause aldehydes to be formed and hence cause SEVERE irritation of eyes and nose.” We should note that Coppola’s Keratin Smoothing Complex Therapy was just ordered withdrawn from the market in Ireland and forced into voluntary recall in Germany “due to the high level of free fomaldehyde” (8 times what is permitted). See [this]  – the danger cited includes inhalation. This after telling everyone there was no formaldehyde, and even certifying people in the use of the product, based on that assertion. Of course, some sales reps and suppliers just outright lie about what is or isn’t in the stuff. One anecdotal report comes from a stylist who was told the above product contains Cinnamaldehyde (the stuff in cinnamon bark that makes it taste and smell like cinnamon). Ding! Wrong answer, but nice try. That’s not Big Red giving you congestion at night.
In the end, it’s science, not opinion or guesswork that should be the basis of determining the safety of any chemical. It cannot be assumed that just because something is available on the market that it’s safe, or that it is being used in a safe or prescribed manner. After all, in at least one case, the official literature of a brazilian keratin producer (not the marketing literature – the safety literature) indicates that anyone involved in the process (i.e. in the salon) should wear a gas mask, including the stylist and the client – they even sell kits that include the masks for both parties. But when that same manufacturer conducts certification classes, this is neither mentioned nor practiced. Stylists are assured that it’s “safe”. If challenged, the company says the product wasn’t used as directed, and then refers to the obscure MSDS version that you don’t have, which says not to heat it to the temp produced by a flat iron. And, of course, the kits sold at the certification classes lack the telltale gas masks. How’s that for saturation? Other brands stopped listing ingredients altogether (it’s not required for professional products) – especially one that allegedly was caught using an incredibly high amount of formalin (formaldehyde) in the product, despite what was actually listed. So high that we’re not even going to mention the number. The CDC found that the stuff that’s used in salons all over the country, though, even saturates the receptionist. Everyone in the building gets heavily dosed. Still other manufacturers have simply been caught producing multiple ingredient lists – one for the MSDS (knowing most stylists won’t ask for – or ever receive a full one), and another for the bottle (omitting mention of the formaldehyde under whatever name they reported it on the MSDS).
We’ve known the dangers of formyl aldehydes since 1867. These chemicals are the basis of embalming, taxidermy, and tanning animal hides. We pickle corpses and specimens in them, for goodness sake – the effects are obvious. It’s about the most damaging substance we have on hand. The plain truth is that all normal brazilian keratin treatments, including those that advertise “no formaldehyde” currently produce formaldehyde or another formyl aldehyde gas during the process, which lingers in the salon, posing a danger to all persons in the salon while they are alive and breathing and until air in the salon is properly flushed out. In one sense, everyone present is being slowly embalmed – perhaps very slowly, but still. And when it’s 10x or more than designated safe levels, it’s not that slow. This is why the best New York salons that do this stuff (e.g. Mark Garrison Salon) do so in a separate sealed room of the salon, with gas masks for both client and stylist, and a forced air removal system that removes the toxified air, since the gas remains even after the process is complete, and that’s using the so-called “no formaldehyde” keratin. You don’t go to the expense of building all that without a reason. And at some point, is it worth it to be the salon in a bubble? Who knew you’d need a room fit for the Andromeda Strain?
Look we’re not chemists or chemical experts, and don’t pretend to be authoritative on these topics, though we do have a basic third grade science education, including the chemistry set. We know what we’ve read, we’re reporting that, and we’ve based what we’ve said on information that’s widely available if you don’t limit reading to just marketing literature or celebrity endorsements. We’re citing material that is widely indicated by whole governments, which we think have a bit more acumen than is required to slap together sentences on a brochure. But it’s fair that we cite specific data, sources, and some selections of places where it’s being talked about. We’re not going to list a dozen venues or sources for every point, but we want to at least indicate that we’re not pulling these ideas out of thin air. Under critical updates, farther down, we’ll include some of those governments we mentioned, where you’ll find corroboration of enough of this stuff:
  • A puff [article], from someone selling the treatment, but read the comments again below (these are the best!). These are even more revealing. Here there is discussion of fake MSDS sheets, and formaldehyde levels. One of the interesting points is that FEMA workers aren’t allowed in their own temporary housing in New Orleans, because the wood used to build them contains formaldehyde. That commenter correctly asserts “it’s about the worst thing you can inhale” and “state agencies require a double filter gas mask” to be around it. Other commenters include chemists pointing out that if it stinks, it’s probably dangerous, and not to take the word of product sales people and other stylists about safety. Another professional recommends sending your product to a lab (lists the lab) and says some actually contain up to 12% – obscenely harmful amounts. Others allege up to 10%. Formaldehyde, incidentally, is indicated by how long the straightness lasts. If it lasts longer, there’s more in there – and remember – keratin doesn’t straighten hair by itself. One commenter alleges the new Keratin Blowout Zero, an attempt to save that company’s rep, contains sodium hydroxide (NaOH or lye). This is the most interesting comment:
  • OHSA just completed a test of Brazilian Blowout and it contains 4.85% of formaldahyde( any amount over 0.1% is considered a carcinogen and mutagen) along with ethanol and methanol. OSHA is asking why these are not on the labels, package or MSDS sheets. Very illegal in the USA. Also special OSHA training is needed for all salons, and clients by law are to be warned about the serious side effects. Just Google CROET, Oregons consumer awareness group who has the OSHA report on Brazilian Blowout. Also Coppola product was just tested and the European Union is moving to Ban this product. It also has formaldahyde. Ireland just had it removed from the country as of Monday 9/20/2010. Just Google Europa Consumer Affairs then type in the search engine Coppola. Do your actual research, not just read the manufactures promo guide. Formaldahyde is very very dangerous when heated above 374 degrees. The gas vapors can cause serious illness, bleeding, asthma, rash and other side effects after just one use. Be aware, Several South American countries are looking to join Ireland, and the European Union in the ban, and OSHA is just now this week gotten involved.

  • This [piece] you just have to read for yourself. This writer alleges the formalin level is upped after approval, so even the 2% (which one chemist calls already obscenely high) isn’t accurate. There’s a nice hub [here].
  • This [article] is a puff, and some of the comments are just pseudo-comments advertising for the products. The claim that “aldehydes are safer and more natural” sounds like pseudo-science. We’re not that dumb. But read the critical comments that go unanswered. Here you find references to MSDS indicating gas masks required, and that the required temperature of 450 degrees for flat ironing does release toxins.
  • There’s some great stuff [here] too. One commenter writes:

    I sampled the air during a Coppola Keratin Complex Smoothing Therapy treatment from 20 feet away with a 3M 3720 Formaldehyde Monitor with an 80 min. exposure time, sent it to a lab to be analyzed, and the results were .241 ppm of formaldehyde. How safe is that? OSHA regulations state that the permissable exposure limit to formaldehyde is .75 ppm for an 8 hour period. That means that if there are 3 of these done in an 8 hour period, you have reached your max exposure time to formaldehyde.

For those who think products wouldn’t be on the market or use the marketing language they do (e.g. formaldehyde free) unless they really were free of formaldehyde and/or safe, that’s *exactly* what governments around the world and across the US are indicating, including OSHA. In 15/16 cases, the marketing language and labelling are deceptive, distortions, or outright lies. See the critical updates below:
  • Oct 2010 Canadian government issues [health advisory] about Brazilian Blowout. Found 42 times the level considered safe, and notes that the gas is highly toxic and produced when heated by blow drying or flat ironing. It also points out that just calling it formalin or methylene glycol really just means formaldehyde.
  • Oct 2010 Oregon OSHA issues [Hazard Alert] on keratin products, including those that claim to be “formaldehyde free
  • Oct 2010 Australia orders national [recall] of Coppola Keratin Complex Smoothing Therapy, Smoothing Therapy for Blonde Hair & Express Blow Out, because… hazardous levels of free formaldehyde.
  • LA Times [article] Oct 10, 2010 reports on California joining Oregon in investigating keratin manufacturers. So far, the results are ugly.
  • Dec 2010 Germany and Ireland go after Coppola Keratin Complex smoothing therapy – Natural Keratin Smoothing Treatment
  • April 2011 Environmental Working Group names and details 12 additional keratin manufacturers (besides Brazilian Blowout) hiding the formaldehyde content of their products [important reading]. This petition is highly detailed and explains why methylene glycol is formaldehyde in solution, despite bogus claims to the contrary by keratin manufacturers. OSHA updates its formaldehyde fact sheet. Another great EWG explanation occurs in this report, which includes the actual government test results and at their extensive site on the topic.
  • April 2011 Minnesota Department of Health issues alert to Minnesotans
  • May 2011 NIOSH just did a test on Brazilian Blowout Acai Professional Smoothing Solution in Ohio and found that, despite having some Acai in it, this stuff kicked out dangerous levels of formaldehyde [here]
  • June 2011 OSHA issues a [hazard alert] for both Brazilian Blowout and “other smoothing products
  • June 2011 New York Department of Health names 19 BKT – keratin products that contain formaldehyde
EWG’s Extensive research bears citing at length, courtesy of the Workers Compensation Blog:

EWG’s comprehensive survey of 45 manufacturers of hair-straightening products has found that: 

15 of 16 companies claim little to no formaldehyde but tests show their products contain substantial amounts – These include Brazilian Blowout, Cadiveu and other top brands. The hair straightener company Goleshlee admits on its website that its product contains formaldehyde but omits the toxic chemical from its online ingredient list.

Fumes in salon air – Tests of salon air conducted in 2010 found powerful formaldehyde fumes. Other tests have found that hair straighteners contain up to 11.8 percent formaldehyde. When vapors reach significant levels, and when products contain a formaldehyde solution of more than 1 percent, federal law requires salons to provide medical monitoring for workers with symptoms, quick-drench showers for immediate use if solution touches skin and emergency eyewash stations. 

Most top salons deny risks – Only three of Elle magazine’s 41 top-rated salons surveyed by EWG do not offer hair-straightening services because of health dangers. Nine salons claimed they used products free or nearly free of toxic chemicals. Yet test results compiled by EWG show the products are laden with formaldehyde. The salons’ claims usually echoed the manufacturers’ own misstatements about the chemistry and safety of the products. Among salons offering formaldehyde hair straighteners are the Andy Lecompte salon in Los Angeles, Whittenmore House Salon in 

What’s coming (we think):
  1. A host of products are going to be banned in the US, following on the heels of banning in the EU and elsewhere.
  2. A host of labeling requirements about formalin, formaldehyde, formyl aldehydes, glutaraldehyde, and other such substances are coming.
  3. Products claiming to be “formaldehyde free” will be investigated, and there will be prosecutions and/or other actions taken against those that are misleading.
  4. OSHA requirements are going to be enforced – meaning stylists and salons will be held accountable for using proper safety equipment (double filter gas masks – not particulate masks) and forced ventilation and isolation.
  5. If we had to guess? Class action suits against the chemical manufacturers by stylists, salon owners, and clients for hiding the formaldehyde producing ingredients, when they knew about them, and for not providing adequate safety information. Especially since a lot of celebrities had it done. Watch this site very carefully: OHSU
  6. Keratin products truly free of formaldehyde “producing” chemicals (referring to how the toxin can fail to exist while cold but be produced out of other ingredients when heated) – only to include other toxic chemicals like lye, which start the cycle of concern all over again.
Where we are with it: Well, they’re banning this stuff accross the EU – France, Germany, in Australia, Ireland, some African nations, Canada, and now California and Oregon are jumping on it, with Ohio likely to follow after those NIOSH results. Minnesota and New York are on it with health alerts. We figure the Midwest will catch up like it catches up to most things, in a few years. It’s very pro-corporation out here, and not going along with what corporations assure us is safe, healthy, or acceptable is sometimes viewed as pro-communist or anti-Christian. Our state will wait for the FDA, except the FDA doesn’t have the power to issue a recall, like those other countries’ governments can. But we’re not waiting or going along. So the deal is that any keratin product that we learn contains formalin producers, or for which they won’t give us the *full* MSDS set of all the sheets, and won’t provide an ingredient list, we’re just not going to use (and we’re going to try not to breathe it). We’re not very “nice” to chemical corps about such things – we expect people not to lie and not to give us the runaround. In a few years, when it all changes here, we’ll be the trouble makers that cheered on health and safety over a culture of just going along like good, decent, moral, obedient people go along. We’ll be the bad guys that decided to live longer, and we won’t lose any sleep over it at all. Meanwhile, we’re on the hunt for a solution that doesn’t depend on the just the hype from the website.
So, are there other options for hair straightening? Yes, certainly:
  1. Asian straightening uses a different process altogether. We do Asian straightening all the time, and consider this our standard straightening treatment. It just doesn’t work well with all hair types.
  2. There are some new products that make the claim that they does not contain “aldehyde producing ingredients“, including when heated (not merely that they don’t contain those ingredients cold, or that “these” aldehydes are somehow not toxic, etc. – which means they just won’t tell you which aldehydes they’re using in writing). We’re in contact with the makers of a couple of these keratin products about the materials datasheets (we want the whole set) and may be offering something like this very soon. If we do, we’ll make the MSDS available. But we won’t jump onboard until we’re happy with what we’re hearing, and maybe a while after that. We’re not into experimenting with people’s health, and we’d rather just say no to some clients.
Doing hair is an art, and shouldn’t require a HASMAT suit to deal with, or just trusting a sales brochure that you won’t get leukemia or nasopharyngeal cancer. Likewise, if being beautiful requires central nervous system damage, we need to re-evaluate what the culture is asking us to look like and why. Maybe instead, we tell it to get stuffed, and do something natural. After all, you can bronze your hair too, but would you just because Rihanna did so? Somewhere along the lines, it gets a little sick, and there’s a need to slow down – as stylists, getting back to style, instead of being chemical technicians – as women, getting back to natural beauty, instead of pickling hair in embalming fluids. We think you’ll agree – if not, there are certainly lots of other options out there.