BRAZILIAN keratin hair straightening treatments, known popularly as “Brazilian blowouts”, pose a cancer risk for consumers and hairdressers, a new UCT study warns.
A number of the products have been banned in Canada and moves are afoot to outlaw them in the US.
The study by UCT’s division of dermatology has revealed that products used in South Africa have up to seven times the legal limit of formaldehyde.
South Africa sets the legal maximum concentration of formaldehyde in consumer products at 0.2 percent. But products tested by UCT had concentrations of between 0.96 and 1.4 percent.
Formaldehyde is a carcinogen, and is used as a preservative in cosmetic products. Long-term exposure can cause respiratory and blood cancers and can be harmful to women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
“We tested all of the products available in the South African market at the time of the study and all had formaldehyde,” said Dr Nonhlanhla Khumalo, the UCT professor of dermatology who led the study.
Khumalo said if you had a Brazilian keratin treatment in 2012, there was a good chance you would have been exposed to a product with too much formaldehyde.
All seven commercially available products tested had between 0.96 and 1.4 percent concentrations of the dangerous compound. Five of those products claimed to be “formaldehyde-free”.
Elfabe Sheppard has been a hairdresser for 28 years and is the owner and principal of the Hair Academy of South Africa. Their students learnt the treatment process using Brazilian Cacau, a brand of Brazilian keratin treatments.
“The product is quite popular,” Sheppard said.
“Until now, I would have said that its popularity is growing and that it’s here to stay.”
The treatment costs between R500 and R3 000, depending on the salon and the length and texture of your hair. Hairdressers apply the product, and then use heat to set the hair.
Formaldehyde allows the proteins of the hair to remain straight, even if exposed to water. The treatment’s convenience and long-lasting results have made it very popular. Applying the product or inhaling its fumes can expose you to formaldehyde.
Sheppard said her students had been using a product that was known to have contained formaldehyde at a supposedly acceptable level. Then the company told her they had changed their formula to a formaldehyde-free version.
“If they misled us like this, then how high was the level in the previous formula?” Sheppard asked.
“People trust us because we’re professional hairdressers, and we wouldn’t want to put the client at risk, but how can you do that if you don’t know what’s in the product?”
She said if hairdressers
really knew the dangers of the product, they would never recommend it for their clients. She blames the treatment manufacturers.
“It’s primarily young girls who are using this,” Sheppard said. “That’s a problem because we don’t know the long-term effects.”
Sheppard said when people trained her hairdressing students on how to do the Brazilian treatment, they didn’t even recommend using gloves.
Khumalo notes in her study that women have been straightening their hair for ages using heat and chemicals to get the longest lasting style. However, Khumalo explains that the “science of straight hair is limited”.
Using a straight-iron or relaxing your hair will get you a similar look, but the effects don’t last nearly as long. A well-maintained Brazilian keratin treatment can last up to five months.
Khumalo says that unlike other health products, cosmetic companies don’t have to prove safety before putting products on the market. She said authorities in other countries have banned some of these products.
Health Canada banned 10 such products in 2010. The US Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings to certain treatment manufacturers.
“All of these Brazilian keratin types should be considered unsafe,” Khumalo said. “Unless the product has another mechanism of action by which it straightens hair.”