Toxic substance found in hair straighteners

Continued state testing of hair-straightening products has shown that many — including those labeled “formaldehyde free” — contain significant levels of the strong-smelling chemical, which is considered a carcinogen and can cause allergic reactions.

The Oregon Occupational Safety & Health Administration, which conducted the tests, is warning salons that they must provide training, monitoring and protective equipment for stylists.

Oregon OSHA's testing of more than 100 product samples from more than 50 Oregon salons confirmed earlier test results that showed significant levels of formaldehyde in products labeled “formaldehyde free,” a statement from the administration explained.

“The biggest thing we've been concerned about is that people don't know it's there,” Oregon OSHA spokeswoman Melanie Mesaros said of the chemical.

The state agency wants to make sure salons and stylists understand that hair-smoothing treatments, particularly those referred to as “keratin-based,” contain formaldehyde and that workers using such products must follow precautions set out in state rules about the chemical.

The rules require training on safe handling and potential risks, monitoring air quality, and understanding limits and how to meet them, officials said.

The training must include where exposures happen, the signs of exposure, protective measures to take, limitations of protective equipment, how to handle spills or emergency situations, and where to find more details about the chemical.

Michael Wood, Oregon OSHA administrator, said it's important that salon workers know the common symptoms of formaldehyde exposure — coughing, wheezing, irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat. Reports from a Portland stylist who experienced such problems after using a product called Brazilian Blowout prompted Oregon authorities to take a closer look at that and similar straighteners and do this round of testing.

Workers exposed to formaldehyde in their jobs should wear gloves and consider eye protection and aprons. Having an eye wash or shower available is recommended.

Oregon OSHA recommends salons get air-monitoring equipment or work with an agency representative or other industrial hygienist to test formaldehyde levels in the air. Oregon's rule sets the exposure limit at .75 parts per million averaged over an eight-hour period. The maximum short-term exposure limit is 2 ppm during any 15-minute period. Workers exposed to .5 ppm averaged over an eight-hour period must have their health monitored.

Oregon OSHA monitored the air in several salons using Brazilian Blowout to assess the effect on workers. Exposures ranged from 0.006 ppm to 0.331 ppm, averaged over an eight-hour period. The highest short-term exposure was one reading of 1.88 ppm during blow-drying.

While state officials cautioned that some health experts recommend even stricter protections than Oregon rules set out, a Medford stylist considered the test results fairly good news.
Stylist Penny Smith has used Brazilian Blowout at Medford's Urban Edge salon and plans to continue offering it once the salon gets test strips, like those used in funeral homes, to monitor formaldehyde exposure.

“We want to know what we are exposing ourselves to,” Smith said. “I have an 11-month-old baby that I want to protect.”

She said that most people who work in cosmetology know the whole industry involves a lot of chemicals.

“We are very conscientious about the safety of everyone in the salon,” Smith said.

Stylists at the East Barnett Road salon are training to use an alternative straightener and plan to test the air for formaldehyde while they use that product, too.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 541-776-4485, or e-mail

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