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Brazilian Blowout blow-up: U.S. OSHA issues warning about formaldehyde in hair-smoothing treatment

April 14, 2011 |  4:26 pm

The ongoing controversy over the celebrity-endorsed Brazilian Blowout and similar keratin hair smoothing treatments that are used to tame frizzy hair intensified this week, when U.S. health officials issued a hazard alert warning about dangerous formaldehyde levels found in some of the products.

The alert from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said the Brazilian Blowout Acai Professional Smoothing Solution contained formaldehyde levels greater than federal limits (though it doesn’t say by how much), even in products labeled “formaldehyde free.”

State OSHA offices in California and Oregon began investigating the Brazilian Blowout and other hair smoothing products several months ago after a host of complaints from salon workers and clients reporting headaches, nosebleeds, blisters, burning eyes, vomiting, asthma attacks and other respiratory problems. Several state-level agencies -- including those in California, Oregon and Connecticut -- issued warnings about the products. Health Canada issued an outright ban. The solutions used in the brand-name Brazilian Blowout, in particular, contained formaldehyde -- which is a known carcinogen -- at an amount “42 times the acceptable limit,” Canadian officials said.

On April 6, the California attorney general filed a motion in Alameda County Superior Court requesting a preliminary injunction against GIB LLC, the company that makes the brand-name Brazilian Blowout. It is the first enforcement action the state has taken under the California Safe Cosmetics Act.

The company’s chief executive, Mike Brady, takes issue with the findings and questions the government agencies’ testing methods. In December, GIB LLC sued Oregon OSHA over its testing, although the suit was later dropped.

Brazilian Blowout solutions have “never emitted any unacceptable levels of anything that I’m aware of per OSHA testing,” Brady said in a phone interview Wednesday.

“We’re attempting to contact federal OSHA,” Brady said. “We don't know anything about their testing. We don't know what they tested; we don't know how they tested it. We haven't been contacted by them so we're trying to contact them so that we can work together.”

“The other thing that we have to make sure is that it was our product that they were testing,” Brady added. “There's a tremendous amount of marketplace confusion -- that Brazilian Blowout is a specific brand, not a category. So when someone says 'I'm getting a Brazilian Blowout' or 'I'm providing a Brazilian Blowout,' in so many cases it's not even our product, so until we get a chance to review anything that they've done I don't have any specific comment other than all OSHA tests that we've had access to demonstrate the safety.”

It’s not only government agencies that are questioning the safety of products used in keratin smoothing treatments.

Brazil In a report called “Flat Out Risky,” the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for health and environmental protections, raises concerns about the treatments and the comparatively slow response of the U.S. government to complaints.

“Hair straighteners based on formaldehyde have been recalled in six countries -- Australia, Ireland, Canada, France, Germany and Cyprus, but are still widely used in American salons,” the report said.

Stacy Malkan, author of “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,” and co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which is leading an effort to pass the Federal Safe Cosmetics Act, cites the hair-smoothing issue as a perfect example of why the U.S. needs a better product safety system. “It’s shocking the reports that have gone to the FDA regarding people who have been harmed from these products. They need to be pulled from the market,” Malkan said.

Hair salon owners who are concerned about whether products they use are problematic can request an on-site consultation from OSHA by visiting its website or calling (800) 321-6742. On-site consultations do not result in penalties or citations. Consumers who believe they been negatively affected can call the FDA’s MedWatch adverse event reporting system at (800) 332-1088.

-- Alene Dawson

Photos: Clients receive keratin smoothing treatments, which are used to straighten and control frizzy hair. Credit:  Felipe Dana /Associated Press