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How Rock Bottom Became My Stepping Stone

jennifer arce

How Rock Bottom Became My Stepping Stone

Jennifer Arce 3

Jennifer Arce
Stylist, WVE Actionista
Pretty Toxic blog

This blog originally posted on Pretty Toxic – check it out for more images!

Very few people have the luxury of waking up wanting to go to work each day, but I am one of those fortunate people. I’ve been a hairstylist now for twenty years and still to this day…. I love what I do!

It’s an incredible feeling being able to transform how a person looks and feels about themselves. We build connections with clients when they sit in our chair, it’s a place for them to relax, they feel safe and trust us.

It’s important for us to always learn new techniques and stay on top of the latest trends. When I heard of a new service that took damaged-frizzy hair and made it sleek, shiny and smooth…it definitely caught my attention!

By 2010, Keratin Hair Smoothing Treatments took the industry by storm becoming the hottest new service to hit salons in years! There were many different brands to choose from, but Brazilian Blowout was by far the most popular. Unlike their competitors it was rinsed out in the salon. It had “no harsh chemicals” and was “formaldehyde free”.

 A few of my coworkers were the first to take the plunge, and their results…were amazing!! Their clients had silky-lustrous hair that looked straight out of the pages of a magazine. They’d describe their treatment as “life-changing”- it cut their styling time in half!

Brazilian Blowout created a BUZZ throughout the salon. Everyone wanted one. Including me.

Not to mention we were smack dab in the middle of a recession, clients were paying $350 for a service that took an hour and a half?!?

Psssshhhh sign–me-up!!!

Jennifer Arce styling hair

I pitched-in and bought the product with two coworkers, one just-so-happens to be my sister Gina. We got certified, started booking clients for the service and just like we always do when we learn something new….we tried it on ourselves first.

It was September 13, 2010. I was finally getting my “life-changing” Brazilian Blowout, but nothing could prepare me for how truly “life-changing” this would ACTUALLY be.

As my sister applied the product to my hair our eyes and lungs began burning, we had difficulty breathing and our throats were getting REALLY sore. We decided it would be best to finish my treatment outside because our symptoms were getting worse as the minutes passed by. Even fresh air did not help our breathing and our symptoms intensified once we applied heat from the blow-drier and flat-iron.

When I got home I was extremely sick and lethargic. It was my son’s 13th birthday and I couldn’t get out of bed. I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with chemical poisoning. I was given medication for my pounding headache and I now needed an inhaler because of what this product had done to my lungs.

A few of my coworkers started realizing they had been sick ever since this product came into the salon. Some had even been on antibiotics for months because of these crazy sinus infections that would not go away. I scoured the internet day and night desperate to figure out…..WTH is happening to us?!?

A week later, I stumbled upon a bombshell……

A government investigation discovered Brazilian Blowout and other products like it contained extremely high levels of formaldehyde, even though they were labeled “formaldehyde free”!!!!

Ummmm. Come again?!?!

How could this happen? Doesn’t anyone test this stuff before it goes on the market? If you’re confused, don’t worry. So was I.

Oh, it gets worse….

When these products are heated, formaldehyde is released as a gas so EVERYONE in the salon is exposed to the fumes! This includes not only other salon workers, but all of our innocent clients in the salon too!! 

After showing the salon owner this information she officially banned ALL Hair Smoothing Treatments. But – since stylists were making $350 on each service, things got really ugly behind closed doors! There was turmoil and fighting, friendships ruined. Suddenly WE became the reason stylists couldn’t make money performing these treatments!

Brazilian Blowout was fueling the fire by DENYING their product contained formaldehyde! They’d say government agencies were lying and stylists ACTUALLY believed them!!

Desperate for help, I contacted every government agency I could think of…including the California Department of Public Health, the FDA and OSHA. FDA investigators came to the salon for hours and collected my bottle of Brazilian Blowout to test for evidence.

My bottle of “formaldehyde free” Brazilian Blowout tested at 10.46% formaldehyde!!

Days later, I walked into the salon and felt like I got hit with a ton of bricks! Every symptom instantly came back and I was so dizzy I felt like I was about to faint. Some of my coworkers had the same symptoms…..and then my sister’s nose began to bleed!

The salon owner had allowed a coworker to do a formaldehyde-laden Marcia Teixeira Smoothing Treatment, even though these products were banned! I knew that day I could not work around these dangerous products any longer.

Over the course of a few days several of us quit the salon due to our health and concern over these products.

Within days we were threatened with “legal ramifications” for not giving the salon owner a 30 day notice.

Even after moving to a salon that was willing to ban these products, our problem STILL wasn’t solved!! Since we didn’t allow these treatments in the salon, stylists were performing them at home.

These products are so toxic they reactivate every time you apply heat to them!!

So when that client came back into the salon and had her hair blow-dried, flat-ironed or processed under the hood dryer, we’d get sick all over again.

We were getting sicker with each exposure and it was taking us longer to recover. Our medical bills were piling up and most of my coworkers don’t have health insurance. This was affecting us financially from all of all of the doctor visits, referrals to see specialists and prescription medications. We’ve had sinus and chest X-rays, MRI’s, Cat Scans, nose probes, blood and breathing tests. And we’ve had to take WEEKS off work because we were so ill from these products.

Going to work had become a real life nightmare we had to relive…over…and over…again! And just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse…it got taken to a whole other level!!

As I drove home from work my vision was so blurred, I was seeing double. I had an excruciating migraine – my throat so raw I could barely swallow. I was coughing up phlegm – wheezing as I struggled to breathe. The next morning tears rolled down my face as I looked in the mirror, I had a blistery rash all over my face and body.

And then…..I started coughing up chunks of blood.

Once again I found myself sobbing in the doctor’s office, only this time it was different. She looked at me and told me what I didn’t want to hear. It was time to make a difficult decision between my health…..and my career.

I was on a downward spiral for months, headed straight to rock bottom, but this was the moment that I actually hit the ground.

I felt defeated. And broken. And scared. My career was over and it was out of my control.

I was sick in bed for weeks, unable to come to grips with this new reality. Gut wrenching sobs as I mourned everything I’ve lost because of formaldehyde.

 Friends. My Health. And now my career.

As I lay in the trenches of the deepest-darkest place I’ve ever been before, my mindset started to change. My sadness – turned to anger. That anger ignited a fire in me that I never knew existed and suddenly everything became clear.

I’m not going to just lay here and declare myself a victim! I’m going to kick….and I’m going to scream….and I’m going to fight like hell!!!!

Rock bottom??? Please…..this is just a stepping stone!!

So I dusted myself off, put my big girl panties on and prepared for what was about to become the fight of my life!!

I started by collecting letters from sick salon workers all over the country, determined to send them to ANYONE who would listen!!

(That’s how I met the lovely ladies over at Women’s Voices for the Earth!)

These letters are from stylists, manicurists and receptionists….even from estheticians in their own facial rooms unable to escape illness because formaldehyde fumes creep under their doors. Our stories and symptoms are eerily the same.

They too have suffered severe health problems because of these products – they too have had to quit their jobs – some have even been bullied or threatened to be fired for speaking up about being sick!

(A stylist’s “formaldehyde rash” after being exposed to Global Keratin by her coworkers…)

At this point there had been no news stories about this locally. IT KILLED ME to just sit back and watch innocent people, LIKE YOU, being exposed to formaldehyde without your knowledge!!!!

This silence had become deafening, and started to feel like a lie.

I contacted the local newspaper – they jumped on the story! The reporter was horrified as I spilled e-v-e-r-y detail. The story ended up being on the front page!

This led to local TV news stories, numerous articles, and became national once I was in the Wall Street Journal and on the Today Show.

After every interview people would contact me – SICK and pleading for help! They would write me letters and want to become part of this movement that was now….getting….BIGGER!!!!!

I was even contacted by the California Department of Public Health. The California Attorney General’s Office was suing Brazilian Blowout and asked if I would be interested in supplying information to the state.

Hmmm, let me think about this for a second…YEAH…I jumped at the chance!!! Before I knew it I was providing the state with key evidence and information for the lawsuit!

Remember my former boss threatened to sue me?

I had kept meticulous health records and saved every lie Brazilian Blowout ever told!! I had STACKS of emails, letters, and I had printed out all the lies from Brazilian Blowout’s website!!

And I had the pleasure of suffering through a grueling deposition with Brazilian Blowout’s lawyer! He may have been the one asking ME crazzzzy and personal questions….. but I wasn’t the one sweating in the room that day!

Thanks former boss!!

Throughout my journey, the organization Woman’s Voices for the Earth played a HUGE part in supporting me as I dug my way out of this hole. They became my rock, when I needed help the most. These women gave my voice a platform, handed me a microphone and turned – up – the – volume!!

They even gave me the opportunity to meet two of the stylists who wrote me letters, when they sent us to Washington DC for the Salon Week of Action.

Dawn Marino – who contacted formaldehyde poisoning and detailed her horrific experience with Brazilian Blowout right here.

And also Natalija Josimov – who started this petition on Change.org.

Our current cosmetic laws are SEVERELY outdated – they were established 75 years ago! That means TODAY in the good ole’ US of A…

NO GOVERNMENT AGENCY – not even the FDA – has the power to issue a mandatory recall that will take these dangerous products off the market!!

So we took our stories to lawmakers because only they have the authority to create much needed laws – we urged them to support the Safe Cosmetics & Personal Care Products Act.

If passed salons would be safe from harmful ingredients, like formaldehyde and the FDA would have the authority to take dangerous products off the market.

I also spoke on behalf of sick salon workers at a meeting on Capitol Hill that included numerous government agencies like the EPA, the FDA and OSHA.

My proudest moment of this entire journey was handing the stack of letters I had collected to Dr. Linda Katz from the FDA.

Oh and in case you’re wondering….that lawsuit the state of California had against Brazilian Blowout??? Well, it was settled.

They had to pay a hefty fine, and change their labels to include:


Oh wait….did you hear that?!?

That was just sick salon workers all over the country finally being able to scream…..

Despite all of the pain, and struggle and tears I’ve endured over the last three years, it’s also opened up the opportunity for me to make a difference.

It’s inspired my crusade to make salons a safer place.

So I teamed up with Dawn Marino and together we created the fabulous Prettytoxic.org – to inform and protect salon workers and consumers from toxic chemicals in salon beauty products.   

We believe a visit to a salon should be a pleasurable experience, not a potential health hazard!

Ohhh and the next time life hands me a pile of rocks to deal with, 

I know what I’m going to do….          

I’m going to build something with them!!!!

Bring it on life!!

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