Keratin Hair Straightening and its dangers

Keratin Hair Straightening is said to straighten your hair while also nourishing your hair. But is it toxic to the rest of your body?

Keratin Hair Straightening is said to straighten your hair while also nourishing your hair. But is it toxic to the rest of your body?

Also known as brazilian hair straightening, keratin hair straightening has gotten a lot of attention for containing formaldehyde.

 Formaldehyde is toxic. 

The toxic effects of formaldehyde include coughing, wheezing, chest pain, and eye, nose, throat irritation, mouth erosion, stomach ulceration.

Exposure to formaldehyde is linked with increased lung and nasopharyngeal cancer. In animal studies, formaldehyde exposure has been linked with increased cancer of the nose. While it can’t be certain, formaldehyde is a probable cancer-causing agent. Read more about it at the EPA’s website.

Now while we would all like to avoid all cancer-causing agents as much as possible, that’s simply not realistic. That would include something like never going out in the sun because of the risk of skin cancer, or never getting an X-Ray when you break a bone because of the radiation exposure.

What the important question is, does Keratin Hair Straightening have an acceptable amount of formaldehyde, so that the risk of cancer from exposure to it is acceptable to the benefits it gives us.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration is the governing body in the United States to decide what limits are legally acceptable. As found on their website, they have set the permissible exposure limit (PEL) of formaldehyde as 0.75 ppm over a time-weighted average of 8 hours. Basically, it means that an employee can be exposed to 0.75 ppm of formaldehyde in the air for 8 hours, a normal working day. They also set the short-term exposure limit (STEL), where they set the legal limit of formaldehyde to 2ppm over a 15 minute period.

This study tests the formaldehyde content of straightening products by Brazilian Blowout, Coppola, Global Keratin, and La Brasiliana.

This is a graph taken straight from the study:

Figure 5 from the paper "Characterization of Formaldehyde Exposure Resulting from the Use of Four Professional Hair Straightening Products" by J. S. Pierce et al.

Figure 5 from the paper “Characterization of Formaldehyde Exposure Resulting
from the Use of Four Professional Hair Straightening
Products” by J. S. Pierce et al.

The graph basically compares the four different keratin straightening brands and how much formaldehyde was detected in the air after treatment had started. Notice the spike in the Brazillian Blowout graph where the measurement of formaldehyde around 12 minutes after staring treatment and within 10m away from the treatment, exceeds the short-term exposure limit (line A).

All the treatments were all at or below the permissible exposure limit, with the Brazilian Blowout being the only brand that exceeded the short-term exposure limit as determined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration .

There is another institute called The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) however, and they set the recommended exposure limit (REL) of formaldehyde to 0.016 ppm. Every keratin straightening brand exceeded this limit.

I’m not too familiar with the difference between REL and PEL, but the paper notes that 0.016ppm is comparable to the ambient levels in the United States (ie. as you are sitting at your computer at home, there could be an amount of formaldehyde exceeding the REL of 0.016ppm). The study also notes that the PEL is intended to protect “healthy workers” from long-term health effects over an extended period- but it doesn’t consider children, elderly, or people with illness.

My Conclusions

It seems ok to get the keratin hair straightening treatment, but we still don't know all the answers, so it may be better to be safe than sorry

It seems ok to get the keratin hair straightening treatment, but we still don’t know all the answers.

I am no expert. But this is what I think:

  • Formaldehye is toxic
  • Coppola, Global Keratin, and La Brasiliana’s formaldehyde levels were acceptable according to OSHA (not NIOSH however)
  • If you are a customer and get keratin hair straightening twice or thrice a year with Coppola, Global Keratin, and La Brasiliana, you will be exposed to acceptable amounts of formaldehyde (according to OSHA’s levels)
  • The study I quote in this blog post was published in 2011. I am not sure if the composition of Brazilian Blowout has changed, but now they state “PRODUCT RELEASES FORMALDEHYDE (GAS), A SUSPECTED CARCINOGEN” on their material data safety sheet
  • Out of the four tested, La Brasiliana has the least formaldehyde
  • Flat-ironing releases less formaldehyde into the atmosphere as compared to blow drying
  • If you are a salon stylist, as few as four Brazilian Blowout treatments may exceed the acceptable permissible exposure limit for yourself and people further away (ie receptionists or waiting customers) so avoid using it.
  • If you own a salon, ensure your salon has good ventilation and use a flat-iron when giving the treatment

I have gotten keratin hair straightening treatment before, though ever since I found out about the formaldehyde scare, I haven’t been back since. Now that I know a bit more on the topic, I would be ok to go get my hair treated about once or twice a year if i really needed it.

However, it’s important to note that scientists get it wrong a lot of the time. There are many instances where they have under or overestimated the toxic effects of chemicals. Companies and salons don’t have your safety as their very top priority. If you are thinking of getting keratin hair straightening- be vigilant. Ask the salon what products they use and do some research on them first.

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