Lawsuit Urges FDA to Take Action Against Hair Straighteners With Formaldehyde

Hair salon straightening treatments can cause a host of health problems. So why hasn't the FDA taken action? (Photo: Gordon Coster//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Hair salon straightening treatments can cause a host of health problems. So why hasn’t the FDA taken action? (Photo: Getty Images)

When Natalia O’Toole began working at a New York City hair salon several years ago, she was lucky enough to move up quickly, from assistant to stylist, within just a few months. She soon became the full-time Brazilian Blowout specialist, pulling in a full client load and doing two to four treatments daily — until a debilitating pileup of respiratory symptoms caused by the chemicals involved, specifically formaldehyde, forced her into early retirement.

“At first I thought, ‘Well, if there’s enough formaldehyde to be really bad for me, it wouldn’t be allowed,’” O’Toole tells Yahoo Beauty. “But I was in denial.”

So, it seems, is the Food and Drug Administration — which today was slapped with a lawsuit from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Women’s Voices for the Earth for its failure to protect the public from the dangers associated with popular hair-straightening treatments.

“The health risks posed by these products deserved immediate action from the FDA when it was brought to their attention in 2008,” said Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research for Women’s Voices for the Earth, in a press release. “Allowing salon workers and their customers to continue to be harmed by these products for over six years is unconscionable.”

The FDA has been aware of the health hazards associated with the products, including breathing difficulties, eye irritation, and nosebleeds, since at least 2008, adds Tina Sigurdson, EWG assistant general counsel. “Despite these dangers,” she says, “the FDA has yet to take action to remove them from the market.” In 2011, EWG filed a formal request that the FDA investigate the products and take appropriate action. But after five years, there has been no final response to the letter and no resulting action.

A spokesperson for the FDA, Theresa Eisenman, tells Yahoo Beauty, “We are unable to comment on pending litigation.”

However, she notes, under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, cosmetic products and ingredients do not need FDA premarket approval, with the exception of color additives. “Companies and individuals who manufacture or market cosmetics have a legal responsibility to ensure the safety of their products,” Eisenman says. ”But [the FDA] does not have the authority to require companies to present data demonstrating the safety of their products before they are marketed. Similarly, cosmetic labeling must be truthful and not misleading, in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. However, cosmetic labeling is not subject to premarket review and approval by the FDA. … Companies also do not have to register their products with the FDA, nor is there any requirement for cosmetic companies to share information about adverse events with the FDA.”

The largely toothless Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was last updated in 1938, although pending legislation hopes to strengthen it by improving safeguards and enacting bans on harmful chemicals used in personal care products.

In the meantime, many salon workers have noticed harmful reactions from the fumes of the hair-straightening products in question but, like O’Toole, have been lulled by a false sense of safety because the products had not been banned. “In the beginning, I was really excited to do the treatments, including on my own horribly frizzy hair, because I loved the results,” O’Toole recalls. But she soon started noticing troubling symptoms: red and burning eyes, a scratchy throat, and a runny nose followed by chronic sinus infections. She kept trying to explain it away by saying it was allergies, doing daily Neti Pot treatments, and reassuring herself that the products were, after all, allowed on the market and therefore must be safe.

The treatments — often with products from the brand name Brazilian Blowout — involve liquids being applied to the hair and then heated with blow dryers and straightening irons. Whether the product contains formaldehyde in its ingredients or not, the high temperatures cause the chemical to release into the air.

It’s probably the reason O’Toole’s symptoms worsened and she noticed painful and bloody blisters in her nose, as well as breathing and wheezing problems that almost sent her to the hospital. She began doing online research on risks related to the products. “One night I couldn’t catch my breath,” she says, “and the next day I went to the salon and said, ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’” She tried working as a stylist, although the treatments still taking place in the salon exacerbated her breathing problems. Her doctor gave her an asthma inhaler that she still uses, although she left the profession in 2013 to work as a flight attendant. She hopes the lawsuit has some affect on the FDA because, she says, “you’d like to trust that the government has protections in place.”

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, claims that the FDA has failed to adequately respond to the risks posed by formaldehyde contained in and released by salon keratin hair products. High levels of formaldehyde, an allergen and human carcinogen, in keratin hair straighteners put both consumers and salon workers at risk.

Wynne Sisk of Charleston, S.C., tells Yahoo Beauty that she owned a hair salon for 13 years and that hers, like other salons, jumped on the Brazilian Blowout bandwagon because “they were all the rage and everyone loved the outcome.” Right away, though, she noticed that the treatments would fill her salon with smoke and that customers and workers alike, depending on how sensitive they were, would feel their mouths burning and eyes “on fire” and start coughing. “Still,” Sisk says, “we didn’t think it was a problem because it was available to us.” She discontinued using the products in her salon after learning about the formaldehyde, but then switched to another brand that was “supposedly safe,” although it was in fact still releasing formaldehyde when heated.

“Formaldehyde is a chemical that we know can lead to cancer,” Sisk notes. “And now that I know what I know, I make sure to tell everyone.” To that end, she has left the salon business and become a full-time consumer advocate. “I was floored when I learned that the EU bans over 1,300 chemicals from beauty products and the U.S. only partially bans 11,” she adds. “There’s something really wrong with that.”

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