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What Doctors Don't Tell You

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March 2020 (Vol. 5 Issue 1)

The hair-raising hazards of hair-straightening

About the author: 

The hair-raising hazards of hair-straightening image

If you're not blessed with naturally straight, silky-smooth locks, you may have been tempted by the Brazilian-style, long-lasting chemical hair-straightening treatments now on offer in hair salons worldwide

If you're not blessed with naturally straight, silky-smooth locks, you may have been tempted by the Brazilian-style, long-lasting chemical hair-straightening treatments now on offer in hair salons worldwide.
But you may get more than you bargained for, as new research reveals that the so-called perfect 'blowout' could be seriously bad for your health.
An investigation done by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a US non-profit research and advocacy organization based in Washington, DC, has discovered that many of these popular hair-straightening treatments are laden with the chemical formaldehyde-a potent allergen and confirmed carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) -that could cause numerous health effects.
Even more shocking, most of the companies that make these treatments are failing to come clean about their formaldehyde content and are duping customers into believing that they're safe.

Flat-out risky

The EWG's report, called Flat-Out Risky (see, involved an investigation of 16 popular brand names that offer hair-straightening products designed to deliver super-straight locks for six weeks up to several months. All but one of the companies claimed that their products contained little to no formaldehyde, but tests reveal-ed that they actually contained substantial amounts.
At the time of the investigation, Brazilian Blowout, for example, one of the most popular brands, claimed that their products had
no formaldehyde. Yet, testing revealed formaldehyde levels of up to 11.8 per cent. Similarly, Silkening Technologies promised "no formaldehyde, no unpleasant fumes or odours" on its Canadian website. But, again, tests showed a formaldehyde level of 2.8 per cent.
Only one company, Goleshlee, admitted on its website to contain-ing formaldehyde (2 per cent), but it failed to list the toxic chemical in its online ingredient list.
Alarmingly, all of the hair-straightening products investigated exceeded the safety limits set for formaldehyde by the US industry safety panel Cosmetic Ingredient Review.
So how are these companies able to get away with making such misleading claims? According to the EWG, many use 'name games' to disguise the presence of formaldehyde in their hair-straightening products. Some manufacturers, for example, claim that their products contain 'methylene glycol' rather than formaldehyde. But methylene glycol, the EWG points out, is simply formaldehyde mixed with water. "That is like saying that sweet tea does not contain sugar. In fact, when you purchase straight formaldehyde from a chemical company, you are actually buying a formaldehyde- water mixture. Over time, when exposed to air, the formaldehyde will off-gas-in other words, revert to a gas, its natural state at room temperature."
Other companies hide formaldehyde with obscure names known only to chemists, while some use chemicals that are not, strictly speaking, formaldehyde, but which will break down into formaldehyde and release the chemical into the air when heated.
"Deceptive marketing of formaldehyde-laced hair smoothing products is deplorable," said EWG senior scientist David Andrews. "While not as common as a haircut, these straightening procedures happen in salons across the country each day, exposing workers and customers to unnecessary levels of formaldehyde that could put them at increased risk of adverse health effects including cancer later in life."

Adverse health effects

Formaldehyde has been labelled a human carcinogen by numerous health agencies. Most recently, the National Research Council of the US National Academy of Sciences confirmed that formaldehyde is a known cause of cancer of the nose, nasal cavity and throat.
Formaldehyde-based straighten-ing treatments, therefore, may increase the risk of cancer among customers and especially hair-salon workers, who may be exposed to the hazardous chemical on a daily basis. Indeed, studies have found that occupational exposure to formaldehyde is linked to an increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer (cancer of the upper throat region) as well as leukaemia (Am J Epidemiol, 2004; 159: 1117-30; J Natl Cancer Inst, 2009; 101: 751-61).
Formaldehyde is also a potent allergen, as the EWG investigation turned up numerous complaints of hair loss, blisters, burning eyes, noses and throats, headaches and vomiting in people exposed to Brazilian-style hair-straightening treatments.
A total of 47 complaints of adverse reactions and injuries from salon workers and clients (over the last two years) were listed in the EWG report, which was obtained from the US drugs, including cosmetics, regulator, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), via a Freedom of Information Act request.
As one client reported, "Within five days of the treatment, I began losing large amounts of hair . . . I have experienced about a 40-per-cent volume loss in my hair and it continues to fall out at the same alarming pace." Another client said, "I immediately experienced burning eyes, burning and running nose, and a burning throat . . . I was in agony during and after the appointment."
However, despite such alarming reports-which are probably only a snapshot of the actual number of adverse reactions-the FDA is taking a 'wait-and-see' approach. According to its website, the agency says it is "working . . . to determine whether the products or ingredients would be likely to cause health problems under the intended conditions of use . . . FDA will continue to monitor this problem and will report on any new developments".

An international problem

Health agencies in other countries have taken more decisive action in response to concerns over formal-dehyde-based hair-straightening products, which appear to be an international concern.
France's health authority has removed eight products from the marketplace after their own tests revealed concentrations ranging from 0.61 to 5.87 per cent-considerably higher than the 0.2 per cent permitted by the current EU Cosmetics Directive. Germany, Ireland, Canada, Australia and Cyprus have also announced recalls of formaldehyde-based hair straighteners.
In the UK, the Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA) has issued warnings and advice on Brazilian-style hair-straightening treatments, but its director general, Chris Flower, admits that some of the products prohibited elsewhere are still available. The CTPA recommends that hair salons check with their suppliers to ensure that the products they're using meet the legal requirements-in particular, that they contain no more than 0.2 per cent of formaldehyde, and come with a full list of ingredients clearly labelled on the packaging. However, according to the Daily Mail newspaper, a number of UK salons-including some of the best in the business-are still using potentially hazardous treatments on unsuspecting clients (see www.
In the US, the EWG surveyed 41 of the nation's top 100 hair salons, according to Elle magazine, to find out which continue to use hair-straighteners laden with for-maldehyde despite the risks and recalls abroad. Nearly every salon representative interviewed knew about the health problems, yet 28 of the 41 salons were still offering the treatments. Only three of the salons surveyed said they don't because of the health risks.
Most worrying of all, nine salons claimed that they used products that were free or nearly free of toxic chemicals, yet tests revealed that the products are laced with formaldehyde. "The salons' claims usually echoed the manufacturers' own misstatements about the chemistry and safety of the products," the EWG report states.

Buyer beware

Ultimately, it appears that it's up to the consumer to be vigilant, so do your own homework if you are considering a chemical hair-straightening treatment. Check which ingredients are being used, and watch out for not just 'formaldehyde', but also 'alde-hyde', 'formalin' and 'methylene glycol'-names commonly used to disguise the presence of formaldehyde. Also, make sure to ask if the salon has completed a risk assessment for their products.
With the deceptive marketing that goes on, however, the safest option is to avoid these treatments altogether, as recommended by the EWG. The group suggests forgoing all formaldehyde-based treatments-even those claiming to use alternatives-in favour of the flat-iron process. This can be done in the salon or at home, using one of the vast array of electrical hair-straightening devices available for purchase in shops or online. The results aren't as long-lasting, but the process is chemical-free. The biggest danger is the hot iron itself.
Still, the repeated use of flat irons, many of which now use extremely high heat settings, can also take its toll on hair health, so aim to limit their use to just once or twice a week.

Joanna Evans

Factfile: Formaldehyde facts

Even though formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, it's permitted for use in a variety of industrial and consumer products, including laminate flooring, electronic goods, nail hardeners and oral hygiene products. The chemical is used in hair-straightening treatments because it links together the keratin strands within the hair's cortex, holding them straight. Heat from a flat iron is used to speed up the straightening action.
However, during the process, the formaldehyde vaporizes and is inhaled, and it also seeps into the scalp. Common symptoms experienced by clients and stylists using these straightening products include:
u eye, nose and throat irritation
u breathing difficulties
u headache
u allergic skin conditions and dermatitis.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "Formaldehyde can cause watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, and difficulty in breathing in some humans exposed at elevated levels (above 0.1 parts per million). High concentrations may trigger attacks in people with asthma. There is evidence that some people can develop a sensitivity to formaldehyde. It has also been shown to cause cancer in animals and may cause cancer in humans" (see


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