The Hair Smoothing Controversy

Ask Doug Schoon what he thinks about the recent Hair Smoothing controversy and he’ll say the following, which may be freely quoted, posted or distributed:

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.

The 15 things I believe the public should know about this controversy:

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

2. Formaldehyde is a GAS, not a Liquid. Formalin is a generic name for a substance that contains 59% Methylene Glycol and 0.0466% Formaldehyde, mixed in water with a small amount of Methanol to prevent the Methylene Glycol (which is a Liquid) from converting into a solid polymer.

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

4. 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.

5. Why is Oregon OSHA taking this stance? They cite regulations which repeat the 100+ year old misunderstanding that Formalin is nothing more than dissolved Formaldehyde, which is chemically and scientifically incorrect. Methylene Glycol is a unique and different chemical substance and Oregon OSHA knows this to be true, but is required by regulations to call Methylene Glycol by the incorrect chemical name, Formaldehyde.

6. Science has known about this chemical identity crisis for over 35 years. In 1972 the American Chemical Society gave Methylene Glycol and Formaldehyde two separate and unique registry numbers (CAS#) to recognize them as two different chemicals. Federal OSHA should require Methylene Glycol and Formaldehyde to be measured and reported separately, which would help avoid confusion and provide for a better understanding of these two separate and unique chemical substances.

7. Why do I believe this misunderstanding should be corrected? Confusion created by this long held misunderstanding is causing medical, environmental and other scientific researchers around the world to be misled. For example, researchers often perform scientific studies with 37% Formalin and are misled to believe it is 37% Formaldehyde, when in fact its 0.0466% Formaldehyde and mostly Methylene Glycol, Methanol and Water. This makes researchers more likely to report erroneous information and draw incorrect conclusions, which in turn, can prevent the proper study of Methylene Glycol.

8. 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.

9. 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. I have great respect for OSHA, their mission and work. I am convinced that they will provide valuable information to help determine if levels of Formaldehyde in salon air are safe. I would expect this information to be released over the coming weeks.

10. 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 is a natural, organic substance 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 exists even in the purest mountain air.

11. 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. Even so, persons with a previous history of allergic sensitivity to Formalin or Formaldehyde may adversely react with one exposure. Therefore, individuals who have or suspect allergic sensitivities should NOT receive or perform these services.

12. 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.

13. 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. Such systems can also be designed to safely ventilate to the outdoors.

14. 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. I have evaluated and recommend the source capture system sold by Aerovex Systems, Inc. I suspect that similar systems on the market may also be effective, but I haven’t evaluated them.

15. 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.

Fair Disclosure: I do not have any commercial interest in selling products containing Formalin (Methylene Glycol), nor do I derive any profit from the sale of Formalin containing products. I provide scientific assistance to many cosmetic/personal care/beauty companies, some of whom sell Formalin containing products, as well as work with governments, associations and advocacy groups on cosmetic/personal care related matters.

This document is not intended to be a complete or comprehensive guide. If you experience significant problems which you believe may be related to these treatments, you should seek the advice of a qualified medical doctor.

  • SoapyGuy

    My experience has been that since it’s a lachrymator, exposure is quite irritating well before you are at unsafe exposure levels. Nonetheless, I worry about the use of these products, especially when heated, in poorly ventilated areas causing unnecessarily harmful exposure to workers. Products like this are good reminders of the need for adequate safety measures when using ANY potentially hazardous products.

    • Dene Godfrey

      I totally agree with SoapyGuy on the subject of ensuring (more than) adequate safety measures, especially when exposure to products is higher than normal. I am tired of seeing people complaining about the effects of certain products (usually those used in hair salons) and insisting that the products are unsafe on this basis. The issue is less with the products than with the safety precautions taken by the salon (inadequate ventilation usually being the issue).

  • Bethany Learn

    Tweeted this! Very good info. Stuff even a lay-woman like myself can understand :) Thanks!

  • Kayla Fioravanti

    I don’t use Formalin, but it is great to have this information on hand. Dose matters in everything.

  • Fatin Khawarizmi

    I use only natural herbs who are safe!

  • Nik22sid

    Im really torn as to continuing the use of Brazilian Blowout product. I want to provide a healthy environment for my clients, co-workers and myself. I think that it is best for me to stop temporarily until the reports from OSHA and the FDA become available like Dr. Schoons says may become available over the next few weeks.

  • Sweethairspace

    I am stylist who has done several of these treatments before temporarily ceasing due to the controversy and lack of information of how to safely protect my clients and myself. I think many stylist have questions about this treatment, not really about what the ingredient is called or listed as, but the SAFETY of the ingredient used.
    The questions I hope you can answer are as follows:
    1. Is a gas mask needed to protect myself from repeated exposure to the gas created if a ventilation system is not an option? Or would a particulate mask be sufficient?
    2. When the treatment is applied and the methyl glycol fixes the keratin in the hair, is that the only time any gas is released?
    3. If the person receiving this treatment flat irons their hair at home, does the hair re- release the gas?
    4. During the wait period after the treatment is performed and a client washes their hair, should caution be used when handling the hair? Should children touch the hair before the treatment is shampooed out?

    I have repeatedly tried to get answers from the distributers and makers of the treatment I use, and have either not been called back or been given evasive answers. I just want someone to give me REAL information that I can make an informed decision on whether to continue offering this as a service.
    I love the results of this service, but am unwilling to continue if it poses a risk to me or my clients. If you can answer these questions, or point me in the direction of the answers, it would be greatly appreciated.

    • Bzstylehive

      I am a stylist too, and I am looking to see if Sweethairspace has received an answer to the above questions?

      • Kristin Fraser Cotte

        hi Bzstylehive & Sweethairspace,
        Thanks for your comments and questions, I’ll contact Doug and see if he has any additional info based on your comments/questions.

        Please keep in mind that we do not promote any brands/products here at PCT (not even the founders and experts own lines) so we won’t be recommending any product or brand, just giving science backed info about ingredients in products. Have a great day.

  • Dani

    I agree with Soap Guy as well. I also just received the full disclosed MSDS for the Brazilian Blowout. The levels of certain chemicals are staggering and very toxic. My concern is for the stylists who use this product and the amount of applications they do. Wearing impervious gloves is the least of my worries, it’s the heated fumes that they are breathing in is my concern.

  • Blhh

    I too love the results of this cutting edge service so my question is….are there any smoothing treatments out there that are safe to use?

  • Doug Schoon

    I think soap guy said it well (below), “..since its a lachrymator, exposure is quite irritating well before you are at unsafe exposure levels.” Toxicologist and Industrial hygienists would agree these products have “good warning properties” that can help cosmetologists know when they are NOT using proper ventilation.

    My opinion is that local source capture ventilation is the key to preventing the symptoms some cosmetologists and clients complained about, e.g. headaches, watery eyes, sore throat, nausea, etc. Developing and educating “best practices” for this category would be an important step forward. Such education should include information about the importance of ensure proper ventilation in the salon, for ALL professional services.

    As a salon safety advocate I’ve been writing and speaking about the lack of proper ventilation in many salons for more than 20 years. This widespread lacking of proper ventilation is a concern and also a large part of this issue. Salons must invest in proper ventilation, which I defined as “ventilation suitable the work being performed” and NOT as “what the real estate or tax preparation office that was here before us was using”.

    To address Sweethairspace questions,
    In my opinion, you must solve the lack of ventilation problem in your salon or reconsider doing these and other services. Certain salon services should only be performed in a well-ventilated workspace. In addition to the general ventilation in the salon, you can purchase rolling ventilation system with moveable and easily positioned vapor collection tubes that work very well for this application. Check out Aerovex There is no reason not to have proper ventilation and I believe that both the owner and the cosmetologist have a professional responsibility to ensure proper ventilation is used during these services.

    Small traces of formaldehyde gas are slowly released from the hair for a short time after the service, but that doesn’t necessarily mean this is an problem. Formaldehyde gas is released in our breath and is considered natural. It isn’t surprising that traces would be released after such a treatment. I’m not sure how much, but I suspect it is very low and close to normal background levels. My only point is, the focus should be on lowering exposure for cosmetologists performing the procedure and client exposure is very short term and limited, esp. compared to that of cosmetologists. Maintaining proper ventilation during these procedures is a key to working safely.

  • Sarah

    Thanks so much for the scientific, evidence-based information! It is so helpful, especially given all the rumors and mis-information about these treatments. A few questions that my clients are asking and I would LOVE your shared insights on:
    1) Is there a risk of re-exposure if the client uses a heated dryer or flat iron at home?

    2) Are clients who have had these procedures at risk for continued formaldehyde emissions?Is this a risk for their children?

    3)If formaldehyde is a gas, does this mean that no residue is left by clients on their pillows, clothing, etc?

    The companies making these products are doing a disservice by not answering questions– if the risk is minimal, they should pick up the phone and give us answers so, as stylists, we can help educate the public. I have dozens of clients who have called me with these questions and no one at Brazilian Blowout will answer my calls! I would really appreciate your continued share insights on this topic as things develop.

    • Doug Schoon

      Hi Sarah,
      Your exposure to formaldehyde never ceases. You are exposed to it every day and everywhere and all the time. That’s not a problem, since it’s naturally occurring. I think what your asking is, will there be significant risk of over exposure from any of the three types of exposure that you’ve listed? In my opinion, I doubt it. Unless you have a hypersensitivity, e.g. allergic contact dermatitis or pre-existing respiratory sensitization, it is unlikely that exposures will be high enough to cause a problem. Even if you have NEVER had such a treatment, anytime you flat iron your hair a little formaldehyde is probably produced. When you burn wood or strike a match, a little formaldehyde is created. The notion that formaldehyde is inherently dangerous is not correct. Long term exposure to levels exceeding the OSHA safe limits are a risk and that will not happen for any of these three exposure modes.

  • Eli

    Hello Doug,
    I have tried a few of the hair smoothing treatments, such as Marcia, Lasio and Brazilian Blowout. I first started with Marcia and Lasio and I experienced extreme burning in my eyes, nose and throat, and I also experienced some hair loss. I did not have the same side effects with Brazilian Blowout. I am curious as to why I would have such an extreme reaction to one treatment, as opposed to another?
    Is there a different chemical in Marcia or Lasio that would make me react that way? Or do they just use a higher concentration of methylene glycol, which produces more formaldehyde when heated, which causes more side effects?
    I understand that there are some amounts of formaldehyde that are safe to breath in. Is it really safe however, to heat up methylene glycol and breathe in the fumes? If it were truly safe, would the attorney general of California file a lawsuit against the company? Wouldn’t there have to be sufficient evidence, that the product is unsafe, for them to bring that kind of lawsuit?

  • Anonymous

    Doug, this is great information -thank you very much for writing the article. I have formulated permanent waves and other straightening systems in the past, but am not familiar with these newer smoothing treatments. What is the active ingredient which softens the hair and allows the smoothing action to be semipermanent? And, how does it work? Are reducing agents used and are disulfide bonds broken?

  • Sarah

    Hi Doug–

    Is there any update on this? I’m not a chemist, so you’ll have to talk down to me:) But I was just curious what percentage of the products of this type that have been studied are actually associated with potentially unsafe levels of formaldehyde gas? This is purely a matter of interest for me. I’m not a stylist and don’t plan on having this service as a client, but I do have some limited scientific background, and have been following cosmetic safety questions here and on the Beauty Brains blog with interest.


  • Doug Schoon

    Hi Sarah,
    This matter is under consideration by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel (CIR) and a final conclusion won’t be reached until the next meeting at the end of June. They’ve reached some tentative conclusions, but it’s difficult to predict what the final conclusions will be. The CIR has asked for additional information and will receive several other industry reports which will also be reviewed and considered. The submission period for any additional information ends on May 20th.

    I can tell you that the CIR does recognize methylene glycol as a unique and separate substance different from formaldehyde and that equilibrium exists which very strongly favors the formation of methylene glycol. They also recognize that 37% formalin is NOT 37% formaldehyde dissolved in water, but instead largely methylene glycol (59%) with traces of free formaldehyde (~0.05%).

    FYI, questions about keratin smoothing products should be directed to the manufacturers. I am not involved in the development or sale of these products, so I can’t answer these types of questions. To be clear, my interest is in the chemistry and scientific nomenclature which is incorrect and should be corrected.

    It’s acceptable for a chemical substance to have many different names, but it is NOT scientifically acceptable for many different chemical substances to be lumped under one chemical name.

    • Sarah

      Thanks Doug–this is helpful. BTW, I am a different Sarah from the person of the same name who posted below with other questions about these products.

  • Rosieb80

    Wow great info thanks

  • Harald Jezek

    Doug, I think what you propose is putting the head in the sand.
    True, dissolving Formaldehyde gas in water gives you methylene glycol. Although a equilibrium exists in favor of methylene glycol when liquid, this changes when the product is heated. In this case formaldehyde gas will be released again into the air.
    In other words, methylene glycol isn´t any better than formaldehyde and OSHA very well recognizes this fact.
    It´s actually interesting that a company, marketing, hair straighteners sued OSHA Oregan in 12/2010 but withdrew their lawsuit in March of this year.
    The problem of formaldehyde containing products is not limited to the US. In Brazil, ANVISA (their local FDA) is actively going after formaldehyde containing salon products and as to my knowledge, Europe is even tougher on this issue, especially since REACH came into effect.

    In any case, even the manufacturers of formaldehyde containing hair straightening products are slowly coming to their senses and other ingredients (e.g. amino acids) are starting to replace formaldehyde based formulations.

    For those of you, who are chemists, you can read this study:
    The conclusion of that study is that the equilibrium of a methylene glycol solution is on the side of formaldehyde when the temperature goes above 300 K (about 35 C = 95 F). This temperature is easily reached through salon hair dryers and even more importantly with irons.