Reporting by Jacquie Cosgrove
Arce tells Yahoo Life that she first started offering Brazilian blowouts to her clients in 2010. “It had no harsh chemicals. It was formaldehyde-free and it took damaged, frizzy hair and made it sleek, shiny and smooth,” she says.
The treatment was specifically advertised as formaldehyde-free, which Arce says was a perk. “I did hear that some of the other hair-smoothing treatments did contain formaldehyde and I knew I didn't want to have anything to do with that because I knew that formaldehyde is linked to cancer,” she adds. Until that point, Arce had never thought about how the product might impact her health or that of her clients.
“We had difficulty breathing and our throats were getting really sore.”
Arce, her sister and another co-worker bought the Brazilian blowout treatment, got certified in how to use it and started booking clients for the service. “Just like we always do when we learn something new, we tried it on ourselves first,” she says. “When my sister was applying this product to my hair, our eyes and lungs began burning. We had difficulty breathing and our throats were getting really sore.”
Their symptoms got worse, so they decided to move the treatment outside. “As the minutes passed by, even fresh air did not help with our breathing and our symptoms intensified once we applied heat from our blow dryer and flat iron,” she explains. “When I got home, I was extremely sick and lethargic. I had heart palpitations and I had blisters in my nose that didn't go away for months.”
Arce went to the doctor, where she was diagnosed with chemical poisoning and given an inhaler for her breathing issues.
The hairstylist discovered that some of her colleagues were also having issues. “A few of my coworkers started realizing that they had been sick ever since this product had come into the salon,” she says. “Some had even been on antibiotics on and off for months because of these crazy sinus infections that wouldn't go away.”
So, Arce did her research and learned that products like Brazilian blowout contain “extremely high levels of formaldehyde,” even though they claim otherwise.
“Desperate for help, I contacted every single government agency I could think of — the California Department of Public Health, the FDA and OSHA,” Arce says. Investigators ended up taking a bottle of her Brazilian blowout for testing and found that it actually contained 10.46 percent formaldehyde.
Arce’s salon continued to use the product and she and her coworkers continued to be sick. “Out of the health and concern over these dangerous products, we quit our jobs and moved to a salon that was willing to ban these products for us,” she says.
It didn’t end there
While her new salon didn’t offer Brazilian blowouts, Arce and her colleagues discovered that the product would “reactivate” in clients who had the treatment done elsewhere when their hair was exposed to heat from a blow dryer or flat iron.
“Coming to work became a real-life nightmare that we had to relive over and over again,” she says. “And just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, things got taken to a whole other level. As I drove home from work, my vision was so blurred. I was seeing double. My throat was so raw I could barely swallow.”
Arce developed a blistery rash over her face and body, and even started coughing up blood. “I found myself sobbing at the doctor's office and that's the day she told me what I didn't want to hear: That I had to make the difficult decision between my health or my career,” she says. “I never thought I would have to choose between my health and my career.”
A new focus
Arce says she was sick in bed “for weeks” before she decided she was going to fight what had happened. She found other women like her who had been through similar experiences, joined forces with an organization called Women's Voices for the Earth and went to Washington, D.C., to lobby for safer products in salons.
She eventually helped get Assembly Bill No. 2775 passed into law in California that requires salon products to have their ingredients listed directly on their label. “It made me feel good that we got this law passed in California, but what about everybody else in the United States?” she says. “We need federal legislation that will protect salon workers and their clients from health impacts, from chemicals that they're being exposed to every day.”
Now, Arce says she still has health issues from her exposure. “I'm allergic to aerosol hairspray. I can't use certain cleaning products. I'll get a reaction,” she explains. “Still to this day, pumping gas gives me trouble. Sometimes I can't breathe a little bit, but for the most part I'm doing pretty good.”
Arce encourages people to be informed about the products they use. “If consumers demand safer products, cosmetic companies will comply and produce products that make us feel beautiful without potential health risks.”