Formaldehyde in Keratin Hair Products

Analytical testing dots Formaldehyde Testing

ALS Environmental provides personal sampling monitors to monitor exposure to airborne formaldehyde and provides its chemical analysis by EPA Method TO-11A. Formaldehyde and other aldehydes, such as acetaldehyde and glutaraldehyde, can be analyzed in hair care products (such as those containing keratin) and other cosmetic product samples using a modified EPA Method 8315 in which the formaldehyde is derivatized using 2,4-dinitrophenylhydrazine (DNPH) followed by high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) analysis.

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Concerns of Formaldehyde in Hair Care Products Investigated by Health Agencies

Since August 2010, health agencies have been investigating the potential risk of formaldehyde exposure from a variety of hair straightening products, especially products marketed as “keratin-based.”

Recent testing conducted independently by Health Canada and Oregon OSHA has prompted both agencies to advise salon workers and consumers to exercise caution when applying or using hair straightening products due to potential exposure to formaldehyde.

On October 26, 2010, Health Canada issued an update to an advisory issued earlier in the month about one of the hair products under investigation:

“Health Canada is informing Canadians that Brazilian Blowout Solution manufactured by Brazilian Blowout of California has been confirmed to contain unacceptable levels of formaldehyde. Note that at this time, this advisory pertains only to the Brazilian Blowout Solution.

Formaldehyde is permitted at low levels when used as a preservative in cosmetics. In liquid form, formaldehyde is referred to as methylene glycol or formalin. The terms 'formaldehyde' and 'methylene glycol' are often used interchangeably in toxicity studies pertaining to formaldehyde.

Testing previously conducted by Health Canada found that the Brazilian Blowout Solution contained 12% formaldehyde. Health Canada has continued to analyze this product. Validated test results show formaldehyde levels of 8.4%, which is consistent with results found in other jurisdictions. This amount is 42 times the acceptable limit when used as a preservative in certain cosmetic products, and remains well above the amount known to cause injury.

Health Canada continues to receive complaints of burning eyes, nose, and throat, breathing difficulties, and hair loss associated with use of this product. Health Canada believes that the reactions are being caused primarily by formaldehyde being released and inhaled during the blow drying and flat ironing stages of the treatment.

Health Canada remains concerned that elevated levels of formaldehyde in any form places people at increased risk. Possible long-term effects are also of concern to Health Canada, since formaldehyde is a known irritant, sensitizer, and is linked to cancer in humans when inhaled chronically over a long period of time. As a result, the Department has worked to stop distribution of this product in Canada.“

In a press release dated October 29, 2010, Oregon OSHA reiterated caution to salons using hair-smoothing products, as testing performed in support of the ongoing investigation has confirmed significant formaldehyde levels.

“Oregon OSHA’s testing of more than 100 product samples from more than 50 Oregon salons confirmed earlier test results that showed significant levels of formaldehyde in products labeled 'formaldehyde free.' Oregon OSHA also monitored the air in several salons to assess the effect on workers.”

“Although it’s not clear whether the regulatory level of airborne exposure would be exceeded based on our results, it is clear that the levels are high enough to cause concern,” said Michael Wood, Oregon OSHA administrator. “And it is certainly clear that the amount of formaldehyde in many of these products is high enough to trigger the requirements of OSHA’s formaldehyde rules.”

While the research continues, the press release further stated...

“…Oregon OSHA is advising salons that use hair-smoothing treatments, particularly those referred to as ‘Keratin-based,’ to take necessary precautions outlined in Oregon OSHA’s formaldehyde rule. According to the rule, employers using products containing formaldehyde must provide information and training to workers and they must conduct air monitoring to ensure workers are not exposed to levels above the permissible limit. Providing personal protective equipment such as gloves or goggles and having an emergency eyewash station can help lower exposure levels."

On November 9, 2010, the Connecticut Department of Public Health issued a statement cautioning Connecticut hair salon owners and workers about possible health effects associated with the use of specific hair straightening products.

In the statement, the Connecticut Department of Public Health notes that...

“studies conducted in both the United States and Canada have reported the presence of unacceptable levels of formaldehyde being released into the air during the application of these products.“

“Reports of formaldehyde in these products are troubling, especially because some of them are marketed as ‘formaldehyde free,’" said Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. J. Robert Galvin. “Our current recommendation to salon owners and workers is to discontinue the use of these products until they are reformulated and further research determines they are safe to use.”

As part of this emerging issue, the California attorney general’s office filed a lawsuit on November 10, 2010, suing to enforce reporting requirements under its safe cosmetics law, a novel system requiring cosmetics makers to submit reports about harmful chemicals.

The attorney general’s case also seeks to force the manufacturers of such products to stop selling the products until adequate warnings are applied and the database report is filed.

If you have concerns about exposure to formaldehyde from hair straightening products, please contact your local health department or a qualified indoor air quality professional.



Health Canada Advisory:

Oregon OSHA statement:

Oregon Health & Science University's Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology report:

Final report: “Keratin-Based” Hair Smoothing Products and the Presence of Formaldehyde,” Oregon OSHA (A Division of the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services and CROET at Oregon Health & Sciences University), October 29, 2010:

Connecticut Department of Public Health issues warning about hair straightening products:

Los Angeles Times article:

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