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Cosmetics Industry Warns Against Cancer-Causing Formaldehyde in Hair Straighteners

For Immediate Release:
March 11, 2011

Jamie Silberberger, jamies@womensvoices.org, 406-543-3747
Sian Wu, sian@resource-media.org, 206-374-7795 x102

SACRAMENTO—For the first time, the cosmetics industry’s safety review board has come out with an opinion that critiques the safety of formaldehyde in the popular hair straighteners known as “Brazilian” keratin treatments. The national Cosmetics Ingredient Review Expert Panel, which reviews and assesses the safety of cosmetic ingredients, concluded yesterday that cosmetic products containing formaldehyde should not exceed 0.2 percent, for health and safety reasons. Hair straightening products such as Brazilian Blowout and Acai Professional Smoothing Solution were found to contain levels of formaldehyde far exceeding that—as high as 11.8 percent—despite the fact that they were labeled formaldehyde-free. The Panel cited studies finding that exposure to formaldehyde gas can lead to certain types of nose and throat cancers, and even leukemia.

In its announcement yesterday, the panel said, “It cannot be concluded that formaldehyde/methylene glycol is safe in cosmetic products intended to be aerosolized or in which formaldehyde/methylene glycol vapor or gas will be produced under conditions of use.”

California’s Attorney General is continuing with its lawsuit against the Brazilian Blowout company, based in Los Angeles and San Francisco, for violation of the state’s Safe Cosmetics Law. This lawsuit is the first time the state has sued to enforce toxic chemical reporting requirements.

Regulators were first alerted to the toxicity of the products when hair stylists began reporting serious side effects after working with the products as directed—burning of the eyes, difficulty breathing and spontaneous nose bleeds. Independent testing at multiple labs have revealed dangerously high levels of formaldehyde—a known carcinogen. These products have since been recalled in Canada, Ireland and France.

“After months of controversy, the beauty industry’s own scientists are finally acknowledging that they cannot guarantee that these formaldehyde-laden hair straighteners are safe to use,” said Alexandra Gorman Scranton, director of science and research at Women’s Voices for the Earth, an environmental health nonprofit. “Now we need the next step –a nationwide recall removing these products from the shelves to prevent any further hazardous exposure to customers or workers.”

John Bailey, chief scientist at the Personal Care Products Council, another industry group, issued a statement saying, “We urge FDA to work expeditiously with Occupational Safety and Health Administration and appropriate state and local organizations to objectively determine if salon hair smoothing products emit levels of formaldehyde gas that are unsafe for consumers or salon workers under their intended conditions of use and taking into consideration salon ventilation practices.”

There are over 12,000 ingredients used in cosmetics, yet 89 percent of them have not been reviewed for safety. Cosmetics are one of the least regulated consumer products on the market; under current law it is perfectly legal for such products to contain known carcinogens such as formaldehyde. Salon workers are especially at risk, as they work with these unregulated chemical products day in and day out, often in poorly ventilated areas.

“The fact that these extremely toxic products are still being used exposes the serious weaknesses in the current law. This is proof that our current system of allowing the cosmetics industry to police themselves just isn’t working. What we need are nationwide safety standards that are enforced by the FDA,” said Jamie Silberberger, director of programs and policy at Women’s Voices for the Earth.

Women’s Voices for the Earth, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the National Healthy Salon Alliance have demanded that the FDA recall the products. However, the FDA can only issue a “voluntary recall,” meaning that the government must have the company’s approval to recall dangerous products. These lax regulations are currently under scrutiny, and will be addressed in the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011, which will be reintroduced this year. The legislation will set safety standards for chemicals used in personal care and salon products before they reach the marketplace, and phase out toxic ingredients such as formaldehyde.

Fact sheet on formaldehyde in “Brazilian” hair straighteners.

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