Toxic hair scare: Name-and-shame call

(File photo) A Brazilian mortician is said to have invented the method. Picture: AP Photo/Felipe Dana

(File photo) A Brazilian mortician is said to have invented the method. Picture: AP Photo/Felipe Dana

Published Apr 23, 2014


Durban - Top South African hairstylists and consumer groups have called for researchers to name and shame six popular Brazilian hair treatment products containing almost five times the legal limit of the carcinogenic chemical formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde also causes eye and skin reactions, and can affect pregnancy outcomes.

The findings were revealed on Tuesday in a University of Cape Town study. It found that most Brazilian keratin-type (BKT) hair-straightening products sold on the local market – both online and via retailers – pose serious health risks due to “unacceptably high and dangerous concentrations of formaldehyde”.

On Tuesday Nonhlanhla Khumalo, the UCT dermatology department associate professor who led the study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatologists in February, declined to name the brands.

Khumalo’s team of researchers tested seven international BKT brands sold in South Africa in 2012 and found six had formaldehyde levels ranging from 0.96 percent to 1.4 percent – on average five times higher than the legal limit.

Five of the brands tested were labelled “formaldehyde-free”.

Dr Mbulelo Maneli undertook the laboratory work, assisted by associate professor, Peter Smith, of the Division of Pharmacology.

According to the US Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel, the maximum safe concentration of formaldehyde is 0.2 percent, a level accepted by most countries, including South Africa.

“The concentration of formaldehyde in the products we tested confirms recent international data, this in spite of much media attention and regulatory concern,” the researchers said.

Writing in the South African Medical Journal, Khumalo said formaldehyde was associated with eye and skin reactions and adverse pregnancy outcomes.

“It is classified as a carcinogen (or cancer-causing agent). Chronic exposure to high concentration is associated with respiratory and blood cancers such as leukaemia and lymphomas.”

Formaldehyde exists as a liquid, formalin, in cosmetic products and is unstable in its gaseous state.

“The false labelling of products as formaldehyde-free exposes unsuspecting consumers and hairdressers to adverse effects. Industry monitoring is needed to improve compliance and protection of hairdressers and consumers,” the researchers said.

The study was unable to confirm that all tested products were Brazilian imports.

Hairdressers and consumer groups who are concerned about the dangers have demanded that researchers reveal the brands that were tested, with some calling for products to be recalled.

The director of the Hair Academy of South Africa, Elsabe Sheppard, said the study confirmed her fears as some hairstylists had complained about the fumes causing burning eyes and dizziness.

“This is a very popular product, used in salons all over. I am concerned about the health of hairstylists working with this daily,” Sheppard said.

“It is unacceptable that manufacturers reap profits from the products sold to salons, knowing the dangers. I wonder if they use it on their own family?”

Sheppard said regulations similar to those governing the tobacco industry, such as labels warning of the dangers of the chemicals in products, should be introduced.

“Hairdressers, as well as the public, will be less likely to use these products, knowing the dangers.”

Master stylist Terry Scott said brands that labelled products “formaldehyde-free” when they contained the chemical were deceiving the public as well as hairdressers, who could be sued.

He urged UCT to reveal the brand names.

“I find that totally inappropriate. I think those distributors should be rapped across the knuckles. Recall those products and stop selling them under false pretences.”

Scott said he used only US-made products for the treatment as the country was strict about monitoring chemical levels because of its highly litigious public.

The treatment, which became popular here about four years ago, had provided an economic boost for Durban salons, he said. Treatment prices ranged from R800 for short hair to up to R1 500 for long hair. He said the treatment was mostly popular with women and young men who wore a “comb over” hairstyle.

Employers’ Organisation for Hairdressing, Cosmotology and Beauty president, Paul Fox, who runs a chain of 12 salons, said most products used for the treatment contained formaldehyde and if levels were below the 0.2 percent baseline, brands could be labelled formaldehyde-free.

He said he was “surprised” at the findings as local distributors were “legitimate” suppliers that had been in business for years. However, Fox said hairdressers had experienced skin reactions to some products, as well as a dry cough, and in such cases salons stopped using products.

Fox urged UCT to release the brand names saying it was not right to “fight the fight” for consumers, but withhold knowledge.

Gerald Wells, general manager of Wesley Wells, said the salon was “very careful” about the brands it used as he was aware of the international controversy over the chemical in certain products in recent years.

“We had to rush one of the staff members to hospital. We were doing a demo with the brand and we used her to apply the treatment to a model and later in the afternoon she had an asthma attack,” he said.

Consumer Fair chairman Thami Bolani said the findings confirmed the consumer group’s concern that some products were unsafe.

“Brand names should be made known to consumers so that consumers can make informed decisions. It makes sense to recall them if they represent a danger to consumers. The DoH (Department of Health) and NCC (National Consumer Commission) should lead that campaign.”

SA Consumer Union vice-chairman, Clif Johnston, said he was not aware of any routine market surveillance, or pre-approval activities by state agencies, regarding regulated levels of hazardous ingredients in cosmetics. Johnston said brand names should be revealed, otherwise products with the correct limits could be harmed.

“Half the information is sometimes worse than no information, and it can cause a great deal of confusion among consumers.

“Consumers have the right to know which products are non-compliant,” Johnston said.

“The NCC is empowered by the Consumer Protection Act to demand a recall in serious cases. Naming and shaming is a very valuable tool, which acts as a strong deterrent.


Local distributor Lars Fischer of Hair, Health and Beauty, which imports products, said he could not comment on the study, as he had not seen the results or testing method.

“All endeavours to improve industry monitoring and compliance and protection of hairdressers and consumers are supported,” he said.

“Before we enter agreements to import any cosmetic product, we establish from the suppliers whether the products are in compliance with our regulations.

“We also request copies of laboratory reports confirming that the products do in fact comply with such standards.”

The Department of Health and the National Consumer Commission had not responded to questions regarding the study at the time of publication.



* ‘You get burned a lot. And (some users) are burned more than others.” Ziphelele Dlamini said she had been using a product for the past five years.

* “We buy them because they are recommended by hair stylists,” said Malibongwe Zubani.

She said hair salons recommended the products.

“I feel bad that we don’t have a hair product that doesn’t burn your skin.

“I would love to have those hair products with no side effects when you are straightening your hair and you can just have like natural straight hair and everything be all right.”

* “I didn’t know of this and I think it’s wrong for them to sell us things that are harmful to our health. They should at least have a warning... so that we buy them at our own risk,” said Sasa Mbasa.

* ‘Wow, I am shocked. I had no idea. I feel as though we have been taken for a ride because no one makes this information available to us,” said Thobeka Nkwanyane.

“How can the government and the authorities allow it? Are they focusing on making money that they place no value on our lives?”


How does the treatment work?

A keratin solution is applied and infused in the hair at high temperatures. This increases shine and reduces frizz, but does not directly straighten the hair itself. The process is reversible, and the hair curl returns to normal in about three months.

A Brazilian mortician is said to have invented the method.

Source: The Hair Academy of South Africa

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