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A Chemical Blowout: Frizz, Formaldehyde and Infertility

Written by Kimberly Inez McGuire for - News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

The first whispers of summer are in the air, foretelling sunny days, sultry nights, and trips to the beach. For better or worse, it also means that many women crowd into salons and spas in a frenzy of pre-summer health and beauty rituals. And it’s no small task to prepare for all the bared skin and exposure to the elements—that’s right, ladies and gents, I’m talking about the Brazilian.

No, not that Brazilian. I’m talking about the Brazilian Blowout (also known as Keratin Treatment), a salon procedure that claims to “improve the health and condition of the hair,” “eliminate frizz,” and “smooth the cuticle.” These are tantalizing promises to a curly-haired woman like me. Between my Irish ringlets and Puerto Rican kink (thanks, Mom and Dad!) my hair can be a handful—and the swampy, sticky DC summers don’t help. Neither do the countless women’s magazines, ugly duckling movies, and makeover TV shows that portray hair like mine as a problem, a “before” picture in desperate need of a stick-straight “after.” So, when I see photos of Jennifer Aniston, Halle Berry, and Nicole Richie rocking smooth, shiny locks, I hear the siren call of hassle-free hair and think, “Why not?”

In a word? Formaldehyde. Yes, that same stinky soup that held the dissecting frogs in 10th grade biology is now available in your local high-end hair salon. Initially, this rather disturbing information came to light late last year when salon workers reported headaches, eye irritation, difficulty breathing, and nose bleeds, all symptoms of short-term formaldehyde exposure. When Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)tested samples of Brazilian Blowout products, they found dangerous levels of the chemical, including in products explicitly labeled “Formaldehyde Free.”

Investigators have concluded that the process of applying the solution to hair, and then using a blow dryer and flatiron, aerosolized the formaldehyde, making it easy for salon workers and clients to inhale. This is a great discovery if you’re looking for an effective biological weapon, but definitely bad news for women’s health. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, and scientific studies have linked it to miscarriage, stillbirth, menstrual disorders, and female infertility. Just last week, the beauty industry’s own scientists finally acknowledged that they cannot guarantee the safety of formaldehyde-containing hair straighteners. And by the way, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of toxic cosmetics targeted to women of color. ... Read more

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