Is the Brazilian Blowout Really Formaldehyde-Free?

People, this is huge.

Oregon Health and Science University has just released the following news: they’ve repeatedly tested brand-new batches of “formaldehyde-free” Brazilian Blowout solution and have found that they each contained shockingly-high levels of formaldehyde (at 10.6%, 6.3%, 10.6% and 10.4%). This comes after a previous test conducted last week, but from older bottles.

I’ve been researching the Brazilian treatments for the past several months and have been dying to blog on the matter, but didn’t want to go on the record until I had dotted my “i”s and crossed my “t”s.

But this news is pretty damn big. Let me rephrase it for you: one of the hottest new companies in the beauty industry is allegedly lying to consumers and saying they don’t contain formaldehyde when they allegedly really might.

The time for tiptoeing around the topic is over.

Formaldehyde, of course, is highly carcinogenic in humans, and has been linked to myeloid leukemia (as well as a host of other problems, including brain cancer, plus eye, throat and lung irritation). There’s no way I would have done the treatment last summer if I knew it might have still contained formaldehyde. I know not everybody feels the same (though I don’t quite understand that line of thinking, as formaldehyde-exposure is up there with cigarette smoking in the land of Terrible, God-Awful, Really, Really Bad For You things).

But this isn’t news, right? Doesn’t everybody already know, based on the 2007 Allure magazine piece Scared Straight, that the special sauce in these Brazilian treatments is formaldehyde? Not quite, thanks to some great marketing spin: after the treatments exploded in popularity, so did the buzz over the dangers, and within a year or two, “formaldehyde-free” versions like Brazilian Blowout began popping up and doing insanely brisk business, recession-be-damned. Visit Brazilian Blowout‘s website and you’ll see trumpeted, in all caps, “NO FORMALDEHYDE!!” As of April 2010, the company reportedly began claiming their formulations were “hyde-free”, period.

And then this recent report from OHSU was released. Very interesting.

(It is perhaps even more interesting to note, by the way, that no huge industry player has snapped up these Johnny-come-latelies. Why hasn’t L’Oreal bought Brazilian Blowout? Why is P&G sitting this cash cow out? Where’s Estee Lauder to get their golden share of this lucrative pie? I wonder what their lawyers had to say about the potential health risks.)

So, I have my own theory about what might be going on behind the scenes, but it’s just an opinion, a hunch, a guess. First, a quick side-note about how these treatments work:

While some salons shy away from the formaldehyde/Brazilian connection by billing these treatments as “keratin” based, implying they are more gentle/less toxic, keratin is not the story here. Keratin does not straighten hair; it’s a fortifying protein which can make the hair look shinier, but will in no way produce the dramatic, very long-lasting straightening and sleekifying results common to the Brazilian. Keratin, in fact, requires a reactive agent to bond to the hair…like formaldehyde.

Remember when the food industry was coming under fire for MSG and partially hydrogenated soybean oil? They learned to be savvy about concealing ingredients under different names like sodium caseinate, glutenate or yeast extract. I wonder if the same thing might be happening now in the beauty industry with formaldehyde. Other formaldehyde substitutes which create the desired straightening effect—and also carry significant health risks—include: formalin, methylene glycol, methylene oxide, oxymethelyne, morbicid acid and methanol. (Formalin, for example, is simply a liquid version of formaldehyde, which is a gas.)

Because the various Brazilian blowouts require the solution to be applied to the hair and then sealed on with a flat iron—at temperatures up to 450 degrees—these solutions are released into the air and breathed in by consumers and salon owners.

Formaldehyde-free? Well, maybe. Technically.

Safe? Nein.

But again. That’s just my theory, my opinion.

Will be fascinating to see how this all plays out.

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  1. Fab detective work Nadine and really great blog post. How badly do we want superduper straight hair??? I’m embracing my natural waves.

  2. This is very scary as I just did a Brazilian treatment on my hair in June and have been thinking I will want to do it again in a few more months. But seriously reconsidering until I get more information. Thanks for the detective work! I am thinking it is even worse for the salon workers who actually work with the Brazilian treatment day in and day out.

  3. Wow. I wonder what the company will do with this information-change the formula? I knew there had to be something in there to straighten the hair.

  4. Lesli, I agree – for women who have had the treatment done a time or two, there probably won’t be any long-term health issues. But for those salon workers who have been performing countless Brazilian treatments on a daily basis (all the while thinking they were formaldehyde-free)…it’s a pretty big health risk. Still waiting for a statement from Brazilian Blowout explaining themselves…

  5. Oh, so glad to have found you! I too just created a blog and I live in Canada. I have had such an experience I had to do something and quite frankly I am just frustrated. If you or any of your readers are interested, my blog is

    I am just trying to do all I can to get some answers, help, anything! I have been losing my hair and had severe breakage but it may be too difficult for me to prove a direct relation to the Brazilian Blowout product other than being convinced it is directly related. I have spoken to the Oregon University, Brazilian Blowout, Health Canada,tried to bring to the attention of the distributor of the product here, emailed my local media, found out the product is also being tested by Health Canada and so more.

    I have email Britney Heunker at Brazilian Blowout asking for a conversation and she did reply that shw would like to speak with me but did not provide a phone number.

    Thanks for your blog!!


  6. Cynthia

    Hi Nadine,
    I agree, this is HUGE. Or at least it should be. Where is the FDA, OSHA, and any other alphabet soup consumer protection groups? Why haven’t the BB solutions that are labeled formaldehyde free, that are coming up with 10% formaldehyde ripped off the shelves? At a minimum there has been a major manufacturing snafu and or mislabeling. At a maximum-there is no limit. Fraud? Deception? Greed? Criminal actions?
    What about the local fire marshals and Haz Mat crews, if they aren’t worried about us poor (mostly female) beauty product consumers? Don’t you think that the risk of fire or chemical impact is drastically different between solutions with 0 and 10% formaldehyde? I did run across one mention of a report that the FDA is aware of the testing results and has initiated an investigation…but what are they really doing? Why was I still able to get my first (and likely last) BB treatment on Saturday? I experienced terrible eye and nasal irritation during the process, and have been ill ever since. My hair looks okay-but now I guess I get to wait and watch it fall out-perhaps permanently.
    The 10% levels of formaldehyde measured in the Oregon studies may only be the tip of the ice berg. The other chemicals apparently react to form even more formaldehyde when exposed to high heat (straight iron). I guess we need some great investigative journalist to get a hold of the story and run with it before we can expect anything to get done by our “watch dog” alphabet soup brigade. I have attempted to contact, local, state and federal offices. Nothing. No response. What the heck else is so important?

  7. Rachel

    So glad this is being discussed. I brought this up with my stylist and she has been very defensive. It’s the competition lying about BB to take away their business, apparently. She really believes it’s harmless, because the company tells her so. Just like the tobacco industry were totally forthright about their products, huh?

  8. If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Do some critical thinking for yourself, assess how it may affect your health, then decide.

  9. JCB

    You inspired me to check out the ingredients my fave brazilian blowout substitute — Coppola Keratin Complex Infusion Replenisher. (You can buy it over the counter and flat iron it in at home, with similar but shorter-lived results to the salon treatments.) No formaldehyde listed, but it does contain “Dow Corning 2078 Fluid.” I checked the MSDS for that product, and guess what? When exposed to high heat, it breaks down into … formaldehyde.

  10. a canuck

    More evidence on this topic — Health Canada issued a warning about the Brazilian Blowout today, and is stopping distribution of the solution in Canada. Their testing found that the product contains 12% formaldehyde (

    I decided to try the Brazilian Blowout this past August after reading that it was formaldehyde-free at that time. After I had it done, I had the worst headache of my life for 24 hours, along with a sore throat for several days. At that point I became suspicious that perhaps “formaldehyde-free” was stretching the truth, but I also thought my stylist may possibly have been using an old version of the product from before its transition to the advertised formaldehyde-free formulation. I contacted Brazilian Blowout via their website to ask them exactly when the product became formaldehyde-free so that I could verify if I may have just experienced the older version of the product, but never got a reply (and have been waiting six weeks). Now we know the actual answer is “never”. I appreciate both Oregon Health and Science University as well as Health Canada for stepping up and testing this product to give us a definitive answer about our suspicions of this product.

  11. D.A.V.

    OSHA’s Testing Methods Proven Faulty
    October, 8 2010

    Download PDF

    The Oregon division of OSHA’s (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) recent claims that samples of the Brazilian Blowout Professional Smoothing Solution contained between 4.85% and 10.6% Formaldehyde has been proven to be incorrect.

    Doug Schoon, a leading scientist and expert who works with state, federal and international regulators to develop beauty industry related standards and regulations with regards to ingredient safety, consumer testing and cosmetics registrations/regulations, says that the test methods used by Oregon OSHA do not properly measure Formaldehyde in water based cosmetic products. The tests conducted by OSHA actually measured a completely different substance called “Methylene Glycol,” and incorrectly referred to this substance as “Formaldehyde.” Methylene Glycol is the key functioning ingredient used in most professional hair smoothing treatments currently on the market.

    Schoon reports the following:

    It is important to understand that Formaldehyde is not a cosmetic ingredient and never has been; it is a gas that cannot be added to cosmetics, and only exists in tiny trace amounts. Misunderstanding the nature of Formaldehyde has led to the incorrect belief that 37% Methylene Glycol is the same as 37% Formaldehyde, when in fact, 37% Methylene Glycol contains only trace amounts of Formaldehyde; less than 0.05% to be precise.

    Flaws in the testing methods used by Oregon’s division of OSHA actually cause the creation of additional Formaldehyde that is not normally found in the product, which led to Oregon OSHA erroneously reporting levels of Formaldehyde that cannot possibly exist in the product, especially given that Formaldehyde is a gas. Once again, what OSHA is actually reporting, is the amount of Methylene Glycol in the product, not Formaldehyde.

    The only method that accurately measures Formaldehyde in water based cosmetic products is called “13C-NMR,” and OSHA did not conduct this particular type of testing. Had OSHA performed this test, they would have discovered that only tiny traces of Formaldehyde are detectable in these products, usually well below 0.0045%.

  12. Terry

    Will people please stop reporting Doug Schoon findings as science? He is a owner in Creative Nail, using many chemicals banned in europe, and he is a paid “scientist” for the cosmetics institute. It would like going to the Beef Council and asking if eating red meat is good for you. WAKE UP people. OSHA did NOT conduct the tests they are claiming. They are only claiming they used OSHA standards. I spoke to OSHA and they have NOT done these tests
    This “internationally renowned scientists” is anything but in my opinion. He is a shill for the chemical industry


  1. […] You know where I’m going with this, because we got into it a bit last week on the Price Check. Several super popular chemical hair straightening treatments, including the allegedly “formaldehyde-free” Brazilian Blowout, contain formaldehyde, or chemicals that are closely related to formaldehyde and they’re making workers sick. Here’s a piece I wrote about the controversy over on, if you need the backstory. (Nadine Jolie has also been doing a lot of great coverage on this.) […]