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Are Brazilian Keratin Treatments Dangerous?

Treasured Locks was approached several months ago about selling a hot new product-"Brazilian" Keratin Treatment. It sounds fantastic. What could be better for straightening your hair? The hair itself is made of keratin. So, applying keratin and heat and getting straight hair for two to three months sounds like a great thing. It certainly sounds better than the caustic chemical relaxers or blow drying and flat ironing your hair all the time.

There was just one rub. The manufacturer admitted that the product contained some amount of formaldehyde. Whoa! Did you say formaldehyde? Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen (cancer causing agent) and allergen. You may have heard of it because it is used to embalm dead bodies. Formaldehyde's import is restricted in some European countries, even for embalming because it is so toxic. Formaldehyde is a great disinfectant because it kills a lot of stuff (microbes). It can cause extreme irritation of the eyes, nose and throat- even in low concentrations. We know there are differing opinions on things like parabens and sulfates. But, everyone agrees that formaldehyde is some pretty nasty stuff. People should only be exposed to formaldehyde under very controlled conditions and in extremely limited amounts. The use of formaldehyde in a product applied to your hair and then heated (released the formaldehyde into the air is something to be especially cautious about. Because those vapors are going to be breathed by everyone in the room.

The manufacturer we spoke with assured us that his product contained the lowest amount of formaldehyde possible. I don't recall the percentage he said exactly. I know it was less than 2%. Formaldehyde is allowed in cosmetics at a concentration of less than 0.2% (as a preservative). I had never heard of formaldehyde being an active ingredient in a product. We we decided to pass on the whole thing. It just didn't sound right to us. Now I'm glad we did.

Over the months, as the keratin treatment seemed to be growing in popularity, we watched to see what the reaction would be to the formaldehyde in these products. If you're doing a treatment at home every several months, maybe it wouldn't be so bad. If you were having it done in a salon, that limited exposure once every few months. Maybe not so bad. But, what about hair care professionals putting it in day after day? We were surprised the FDA hadn't stepped in.

A salon in Portland asked Oregon Health and Sciences University to test a line of popular Brazilian straightening treatments. The salon had stopped using the treatments because their operators were reporting difficulty breathing, nose bleeds and eye irritation (all symptoms of exposure to formaldehyde) after working with the treatments. The results were disturbing to say the least. The lab found levels of formaldehyde ranging from just over 6% to over 10%. A newer "formaldehyde free" version of the product had about 8.5% formaldehyde. Even the products that were not labeled "formaldehyde free" did not mention formaldehyde on the product label or material safety data sheet.

Well, apparently, the FDA still hasn't stepped in. But the Canadian government has. Health Canada, the department of the government of Canada responsible for national public health, conducted their own tests, finding even higher levels, of 12 percent formaldehyde. Health Canada is working with the Canadian distributor to stop distribution of this product to salons in Canada. Health Canada is also informing consumers of the health risks associated with this product. As far as we know, the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates personal care products in the U.S., has not responded.

We don't know what the levels of formaldehyde are in all of the many spin-offs and knock offs of the Brazilian Keratin Treatments. But, at this point, I would not recommend taking the manufacturers' word for it. When it comes to these treatments, we advise you to proceed with caution until we all better understand exactly what's in them. And, if we do find out they are 6-12% formaldehyde, we'd recommend staying away from them entirely.