The Hair Smoothing Controversy

By Doug Schoon

I’m a scientist and chemist that has been researching and writing about salon product safety for over 20 years and have studied the use of Formalin in cosmetics and personal care products. I’ve been researching Formalin containing hair smoothing products for almost two years and am considered a leading expert on this subject. In light of all of the misinformation, worry and confusion, I believe it is important to provide information that might help to clarify the situation.

In general, “hair/keratin smoothing products” use Formalin as the functional ingredient. Formalin treatments provide superior results and services that last up to three to four months.

Formaldehyde is a GAS, not a liquid. Formalin is a generic name for a substance that contains 59% Methylene Glycol and 0.0466% Formaldehyde.

A change accepted in late 2008 by the International Nomenclature of Cosmetics Dictionary (INCI), 2010 edition, now recognizes Formalin by its correct name, Methylene Glycol, making this the name manufacturers will be using to label cosmetic products containing Formalin.

Products containing 5% Formalin (or less) contain less than 0.0025% Formaldehyde. The reason Oregon OSHA* (and others) quote a much higher percentages is: The test methods they use actually measure both Methylene Glycol and Formaldehyde together as though they were one chemical, and do not report them separately, or use their proper chemical names. A “10% Formaldehyde” report from Oregon OSHA would be scientifically correct if it reported 9.96% Methylene Glycol and 0.04% Formaldehyde instead.

When Formalin containing hair smoothing products are heated, they can release low levels of Formaldehyde gas. The limited salon studies I have performed over the last 18 months have indicated that inhalation exposure levels are within the Federal OSHA safe limits. Even so, sensitive individuals may experience acute (short term) symptoms such as irritated eyes or skin, headaches, difficulty breathing, sore throat and/or nausea, even at levels considered safe by Federal OSHA guidelines.

Safe and proper use largely depend on the salon ventilation, as well as, cosmetologists’ product control and application procedures. Cosmetologists sometimes apply far too much product to the hair, which unnecessarily increases inhalation exposure, while wasting product and money.

The safety of these types of products and services is currently being examined by the FDA and OSHA. They will look at the results obtained by monitoring cosmetologists’ and clients’ exposure to Formaldehyde gas in salon air. This type of testing is proper and accurate and will address the real issue: What are the levels of exposure for clients, cosmetologists, and other salon workers? This information is needed before any final conclusions can be reached.

Yes, there is a safe level for exposure to Formaldehyde and this substance is NOT automatically harmful at any concentration. Both Methylene Glycol and Formaldehyde are natural, organic substances normally found in trace amounts in many foods, e.g. pears, apples, tomatoes, radishes, cabbage, carrots, green onions, meat, fish and shellfish. They are also naturally found in human blood and breath and both can be found naturally in organically grown foods and traces of Formaldehyde exist even in the purest mountain air.

In general, one or two, or even a million molecules aren’t likely to cause harm, since the potential for harm is caused by prolonged and/or repeated overexposure to unsafe levels; usually over an extended period of time. Less frequent exposures are less likely to result in harm or injury. Controlling the amount of exposure, e.g. proper ventilation, lowers exposure, lessens the risks and improves safety.

My (limited) experience with testing the air in salons over the last 18 months leads me to believe that a well-ventilated salon, performing two or three hair smoothing treatments per day will not exceed the Federal OSHA safe levels for Formaldehyde gas.

Cosmetologist and client safety can further be improved by using proper ventilation. The most useful type is called “chemical source capture” or “local” ventilation, meaning these devices pull much of the vapors into an overhanging hood, down a flexible tube, and through at least a 3 inch bed of activated charcoal to absorb a sizeable amount of Formaldehyde and lower exposure.

Even salons that do not perform these types of hair smoothing treatments should still always use proper ventilation. Other services also create vapors, mists and dusts which must be controlled.

Cosmetologists should always wear impervious gloves, e.g. nitrile gloves, to help avoid the potential for adverse skin reactions from accidental skin contact to Formalin containing products. Safety eye protection equipment should be worn to prevent accidental eye exposure. Read and understand ALL warnings provided by the manufacturer, including the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) and call to ask the company questions.

Internationally known Scientist/Chemist Doug Schoon, provides scientific assistance to many cosmetic/personal care/beauty companies, as well as work with governments, associations and advocacy groups on cosmetic/personal care related matters. To read his full report on the hair smoothing controversy visit www.schoonscientific.com/in-the-news-articles.html.

*To read the Oregon OSHA news release referred to in this article visit www.orosha.org/admin/newsrelease/2010/nr2010_25.pdf

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