“Formaldehyde-free” hair straightening treatments remain popular among many frizzy-haired folk who want the benefits of the “Brazilian Blowout” and other straightening treatments—without the harmful risks associate with formaldehyde. But these treatments aren’t necessarily any safer than their formaldehyde-based counterparts, cautions Nicole E. Rogers, MD, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans. She spoke during the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology in Denver in March 2014.
Formaldehyde-free is a clever marketing term, not necessarily a chemical one, she says. These treatments often contain chemicals that convert to formaldehyde with heat. “The formaldehyde is what binds with the hair’s keratin to makes it stick straight,” she says. “Any product that has a dramatic straightening effect must contain some kind of formaldehyde derivative.” The FDA classifies formaldehyde as a chemical known to cause cancer. It also may cause nosebleeds and nose and eye irritation, especially among those who are frequently exposed to it or who have underlying respiratory conditions.
It’s not clear who is most at risk from these chemicals, Rogers adds. “There is a chance that consumers and hair dressers or even people who live or work in buildings that share ventilation with hair salons may be at risk.”
Questions about Ingredients remain and there is no way of knowing for sure if formaldehyde-free hair straighteners provide a safer alternative than previous products, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at New York City’s Mt. Sinai Medical Center.
“Despite their name, formaldehyde-free straighteners may contain trace amounts of formaldehyde [and] there is little regulation over these treatments, so it is up to the manufacturer to ensure that the levels are low,” he says. In some cases, chemicals similar to formaldehyde, such as biformyl, also known as ethandia, and glyoxal are used as a substitute. “While these are not classified as a carcinogen, they can be very irritating or cause allergies,” he says. “The only way to avoid formaldehyde altogether is not to get the treatment at all.”
Another possible ingredient in some “formaldehyde-free” treatments is methylene glycol. The Independent Cosmetic Ingredient Review looked at its use for hair straightening several years ago and concluded that it was unsafe. There are many straighteners on the market, and it’s difficult to know what is used in each of them, says Halyna Breslawec, PhD, Chief Scientist at the Personal Care Products Council, a Washington, DC-based trade group representing the cosmetic industry.
“Consumers looking at long term straightening treatments should ask the salon what is in the product and whether or not the chemical produces formaldehyde,“ she says. “Be very cautious.” Rogers adds that the safest way to straighten hair is to use blow dryers or straightening irons on the lowest possible temperature as little as possible. That means keeping temperatures 300 degrees Fahrenheit or below, she says.
Special shampoos, styling products, and flat irons can all give you smoother, straighter locks, but the effects are usually temporary. According to Teresa Probst at Varin Salon in New York City, “If you want straight, frizz-free hair that lasts from three to six months or even longer, chemical straightening is the only way to go. A keratin straightening system applied by a professional can make hair more manageable and add shine. If used incorrectly, or if the wrong product is used on the wrong hair type or texture, the result can be damage and breakage.” She also recommends against having color and straightening done at the same time.
A flat iron will help keep hair straight, but as Probst said, “Be sure to protect your cuticle with a heat protectant before you pick up a flat iron.”
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