Hair stylist Natalija Josimov combed the straightening solution through her client's hair. She snapped on the blow dryer, and the heated hair sent up a plume of white vapor that wrapped them in a toxic cloud. Next came the 450-degree flat iron, letting loose another sharp stink of embalming fluid that burned her eyes and made her nauseous.
Every day for months, Josimov performed three or four chemical straightening treatments at a New York City salon until she fell so ill she couldn’t even stay in the same room.
Josimov is accustomed to odors of peroxide, nail polish and permanent wave solution. But this is different: It’s Brazilian Blowout, and its secret ingredient is formaldehyde, a carcinogen linked to nose and throat cancers, leukemia, respiratory problems and other health effects.
Brazilian Blowout is a dramatic example of how little authority federal and state governments have over the estimated $30-billion annual cosmetics industry – even when there is compelling evidence that ingredients are dangerous.
Under federal law, cosmetics companies don't have to disclose chemicals or gain approval for the 2,000 products that go on the market every year. And removing a cosmetic from sale takes a battle in federal court.
“I thought this wouldn't be on the market if it was dangerous. I really didn't understand there was no protection,” said Josimov, who is among thousands of stylists who are pleading with government regulators to take Brazilian Blowout and similar products out of their salons and off the market.
Brazilian Blowout's Acai and Original hair-smoothing products contain high concentrations of methylene glycol, the liquid form of formaldehyde, according to government testing. The chemical helps alter the protein structure of hair strands so that they remain smooth and straight for months.
Despite a series of federal and state efforts in recent months to get rid of the product, it remains in salons across the country. The Food and Drug Administration has not prohibited it, and, without the federal government's lead, no state can easily get it off the market.
GIB LLC, the North Hollywood, Calif., company that manufactures Brazilian Blowout, was cited last year by FDA for “adulteration” and “misbranding” of its Acai solution.
Another federal agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, issued a health alert about formaldehyde in hair straighteners, and fined some salons where the air violated workplace safety limits. Several states, including California and New York, also have issued health alerts to stylists.
In January, the California Attorney General won a settlement against GIB for deceptive advertising and failure to disclose a known cancer-causing ingredient. And a review panel of health experts, established by the cosmetics industry, called the hair-smoothing products "unsafe."
Representatives of GIB LLC did not grant interviews for this story despite repeated attempts to contact them. In court documents, the company called California's enforcement action “baseless litigation” that has not proven irreparable harm to stylists.
The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, enacted in 1938, doesn't require FDA approval before a beauty product is sold to the public or give the agency authority to recall a harmful product, according to Michael Landa, director of the FDA's Food Safety and Applied Nutrition branch, who testified at a congressional subcommittee earlier this year.
Michael DiBartolomeis, chief of the safe cosmetics program at the California Department of Public Health, said Brazilian Blowout is an example of a product that never should have gone on the market.