Why Is the FDA Poisoning the Beauty Industry?

Toxic hair products—including hair relaxers and the Brazilian blowout—have been making salon workers sick for years. With no regulation required, stylists are forced to save themselves.

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In 2011, when hairstylist Dawn Marino was applying the chemical straightner Brazilian Blowout to a client at a high-end salon in the Gramercy Park neighborhood of Manhattan, she was overcome with nausea. She had been feeling sick for weeks, experiencing severe head pressure and nasal congestion. While she was working at the salon, her eyes were burning. She felt lethargic, and her body broke out in a rash. Marino, 29, saw her physician, who diagnosed her with a sinus infection, and eventually, asthma. Despite taking antibiotics, among other medications to relieve the symptoms, she was still feeling sick. And then it clicked: Every time she or another stylist applied chemical straightner on a client’s hair, her symptoms were triggered and she’d have to leave the floor. Marino researched the treatments on her own, and after further tests, the doctor confirmed she was experiencing formaldehyde poisoning. The cause? The Brazilian Blowout treatment.

It was only a few months prior to Marino’s becoming ill that the salon had begun offering the chemical hair straightener, Brazilian Blowout, and the keratin treatment, Coppola. The treatments, ranging in price from $200 to $600 (depending upon hair length), became instantly popular as a quick fix to unruly hair. The straightening effect would last up to three months, and was a time-saving alternative to the maintenance of everyday blow drying.

On average, Marino was applying up to five treatments a day. Her clientele was primarily middle-aged Caucasian women, and although a Groupon deal enticed first-time visitors to the salon, clients would end up paying full-price to maintain the desirable results with repeat visits. The Brazilian Blowout meant big business for the independent salon. “It’s an expensive service,” Marino said, “and stylists get tipped very well.” Her customers were happy, and so was her boss. But Marino’s health was declining. Having no sympathy from the salon owner, she had no choice but to leave her job.

It turns out the hair-smoothing treatments, which consist of a liquid gel applied to the hair followed by a flatiron, release formaldehyde gas—a known carcinogenic—upon heat activation. And Marino wasn’t the only stylist suffering from the side effects. Marino remembers that they’d step off the floor and complain about feeling light-headed and experiencing headaches. “Nobody wants to say anything,” she said, “but people are afraid to lose their jobs and end up justifying their symptoms.”

According to the Beauty Salon Business Overview & Trends, 2014 report, the industry is growing and its annual revenue is expected to reach $58.7 billion by 2019. As of 2012, the industry employed over about 663,300 hairdressers, stylists, barbers, and cosmetologists, and these numbers are projected to grow by up to 13 percent from 2012 to 2022. But compared to other billion-dollar U.S. industries like health care and tobacco, the beauty industry still gets a free pass when it comes to government regulation.

It’s no secret that millions of consumers spend hours in salons receiving expensive treatments. Global sales in the beauty and personal care industry were roughly $426 billion in 2011, according to a 2012 Euromonitor report. Traditionally a female dominated category, this same report projected male grooming to be one of the fastest growing categories within beauty and personal care products that would add approximately $4 billion of sales by 2014. And according to a Mintel report, men exceeded this number in the U.S. alone. But the industry’s use of unregulated products is affecting its employees’ health in measurable ways, and formaldehyde poisoning is just the beginning. At what point does the need to defend people’s health trump a good business model? Why does the U.S. government refuse to regulate the increasingly profitable beauty industry?

Hair stylist Eneshal Miller, a 40-year-old African-American woman from Burtonville, Maryland, has been using chemical relaxers to straighten her hair since she was 12. At 16 she developed uterine fibroids, which caused painful cramping and heavy menstrual bleeding. The symptoms led to five myomectomy (fibroid removal) surgeries. “After my surgeries, the doctor said, ‘Take folic acid and don’t have sex,’ ” she remembers. Another side-effect? Infertility.

Numerous studies in recent years have suggested a direct link between chemical relaxers and uterine fibroid tumors. The link is even stronger among African-American women. But Miller says her doctors never drew the connection between the salon treatments and her health problems, and she’s never heard a salon owner disclose to a client the possible risks associated with relaxers.

Even while attending beauty school, she says she was never informed that some products contain potentially harmful chemicals. The only safety precaution she was told was to wear gloves when using chemicals. But after the surgeries, she wondered, “Am I dreaming that chemicals make me sick?”

Other stylists dreamed the same thing. Trinidad-born Shazz Brown, a 54-year-old stylist now based in Ft. Lauderdale, used chemical relaxers on her hair since her early teens. Over the years, she’s suffered severe hair and scalp damage, memory loss, ulcerated colitis, nosebleeds, and a “community” of uterine fibroids. Three of her fingertips have been burned off from overexposure to harsh chemicals such as hydroxide and lye. Though she’s owned 12 salons over the course of her more than 30-year beauty career, she’s had to gradually move away from the traditional salon environment due to her declining health. And similar to Eneshal, no doctor has ever attributed toxic chemical exposure as a cause of her ailments.

By ridding their salon of toxic chemicals, the Adjory family may have found a solution to the health crisis. The Adjory family, including mother Nori, and her two daughters Roya and Roza, owns Nori’s Eco Salon in Encino, CA, a Green salon certified by the City of L.A. In order to become Green, the salon was required to meet the environmental standards and protocols of The Green Business program, ensuring all products sold and used were non-toxic and biodegradable, as well as the installation of a double ventilation system and air-purifier. Going green nine years ago was a decision made when Roya’s sister, Roza, experienced major allergies and developed sinusitis from long hours at the salon. Her clients suffered, too, and they often brought her photos showing their allergic reactions, scabbing, and burns.

Rory Adjory, a 25-year industry veteran, knows how low the standards are set for hair salons. “Some products have toxic chemicals and some don’t,” she said, “and now that I look at these products, many of which carry xenoestrogens,”or hormonal-altering chemicals found in many personal care products—”I feel my sister’s illness and my infertility issues were caused from exposure to these chemicals.”

All around the country, stylists like Marino, Miller, Brown, and Ajory were forced to find alternative treatments after suffering health problems. They each reported that the salons they worked in refused to stop using toxic products that rake in a lot of revenue, but carry hazardous side effects. “We trust those in charge way too much, and I’m not saying that one body of government needs to be responsible for everything, but there should be a code of ethics,” said Miller.

The beauty industry has come under rigorous scrutiny in recent years. Myriad studies point to toxic ingredients lurking in home personal care products and popular hair salon treatments. Hairdressers disproportionately face increased risks of several types of cancer including breast cancer, lung cancer, cancer of the larynx, bladder, and multiple myeloma,” as evidenced in a November 2014 report by the nonprofit advocacy group Women’s Voices for the Earth.  

Organizations such as The Cancer Prevention Coalition and the Organic Consumers Association have both acknowledged the toxins in our beauty products by laying out the chemicals and procedures to avoid, and exposing potentially dangerous products to promote awareness and safety for the general public.

“Xenoestrogens are in everyday products: Plastics, cleaners, health and beauty products, make-up—and yes— hair salon products in high quantities staff members are exposed to all-day that are absorbed though the skin,” says licensed Naturopathic doctor Hilary Martin.

The Brazilian Blowout’s Acai Professional Smoothing Solution and Professional Solution were found to have traces of up to 11 percent formaldehyde by an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) laboratory in Oregon, causing a ban in Canada and the European Union. Still, despite several state mandates, a high-profile lawsuit and FDA warning letters, the FDA has yet to enforce any actual regulations on these products. U.S. government agencies regulate food, pharmaceuticals and transportation, but beauty products still undergo less scrutiny than microwaves. But why?

“Updating regulations is not an easy thing for any agency to do, so without a really compelling reason [like a lawsuit, a congressional mandate or highly publicized deaths or harm from a product], I think the FDA will generally leave well enough alone,” says Alexandra Scranton, Director of Science and Research at Women’s Voice’s for the Earth and author of “The Beauty and Its Beast” report. “The problem is that adverse event reporting for cosmetics is entirely voluntary, whereas there is mandatory reporting for drugs and medical devices.”

The FD&C Act has not been updated since it was instated in 1938. The Safe Cosmetics & Personal Care Products Act of 2011 was a bill introduced to congress by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (IL) to amend the current Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act “to ensure the safe use of cosmetics, and other purposes.”

Under the current 77-year-old FD&C Act, cosmetics and cosmetic ingredients, aside from color additives, do not need FDA approval before they hit the shelves, and there’s no mandate for companies to list, which chemicals are actually in their products.

“FDA does not have the authority to require cosmetic manufacturers to submit their safety data to FDA, and in order for FDA to take action against a product FDA must prove that the particular product or ingredient is adulterated or misbranded,” Nakissa Sadrieh, Director of the Cosmetics Division at the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors, responded via email.

Progress came slowly in California in 2011. Under the jurisdiction of Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, the FDA took legal action against the California-based company Brazilian Blowout. The initial Blowout settlement brought the product into compliance with the state’s laws in numerous ways, most importantly requiring the warning labels to include formaldehyde exposure, and to cease deceptive advertising. The company was fined $600,000 and the FDA issued it a warning later.

“This is a significant improvement over the situation before our litigation, but does not mean that the product is necessarily safe to use,” Attorney General Harris’s office told me via email. “Typically, however, the FDA only exercises this authority where something is contaminated (e.g., with bacteria), as opposed to where the intended formulation is of dubious safety.”

Brazilian Blowout has since released a product billed as “formaldehyde-free” called “Zero,” but its formula has not been tested by the FDA. Stylist Marino claims to have suffered the same symptoms when she’s been exposed to the product.

Regardless of this piece of legislation and the legal process, change hasn’t been so easy at the level of federal government for the control of toxic chemicals. Even the FDA is skeptical about its own authority. Nakissa Sadrieh, Director of the Cosmetics Division at the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors, also stated that because the FDA operates under the laws passed by Congress, its legal authority is limited. It’s especially important, she said, “for consumers, salon professionals, and healthcare providers to let FDA know if they experience an adverse event related to a cosmetic.”

And here’s where the real quagmire lives: “FDA does not have the authority to require cosmetic manufacturers to submit their safety data to FDA,” added Sadrieh, “and in order for FDA to take action against a product FDA must prove that the particular product or ingredient is adulterated or misbranded.” In short, someone has to get sick before the government will take action.

And when Marino did get sick, in 2012 she attempted to lobby for change on Capitol Hill. Marino and a group of her salon coworkers met with several representatives of congress including Rep. Schakowsky, Rep. Ed Markey (MA) (now state senator), and Rep. Tammy Baldwin (WI). Marino also met with the Salon Interagency Working Group, which includes the EPA, OSHA, (which included White House Cabinet Secretary Chris Lu) to discuss the importance of the Safe Cosmetics & Personal Care Products Act. However no changes were made. And the recent Senate bills proposed to update the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, enforced by the EPA, excludes cosmetics among several other product categories, such as food, drugs, and pesticides. A new beauty-related bill has been sent to Congress every year since, but has yet to update the current FD&C Act of 1938. The most recent legislation hope is found in a bill introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Susan Collins, R-Maine called “The Personal Care Products Safety Act.” If passed, the FDA would be granted more power to control what’s in beauty and personal care products. It’s by no means a perfect piece of legislation, but even a small step of change helps. Fingers crossed.

“Because it’s not a regulated industry anything goes,” Adjory said, “and if you’re not curious enough to know what you’re putting on your body, you could be the victim of a mishap.”

Contact MedWatch, FDA’s problem-reporting program, online or at 1-800-332-1088.


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