Authorities say the heat from straightening irons and blow-dryers can turn the ingredients in hair smoothers into formaldehyde, now considered a carcinogen. (Marvin Joseph/WASHINGTON POST)

When Adelia Varga visited Brazil four years ago, she tried a hair smoothing product and couldn’t believe how it tamed her wild, curly hair. She brought it back to the Rockville salon where she works and now regularly uses a similar treatment on herself and her clients.

“My hair looks so healthy,” Varga, 38, said recently as another stylist dabbed the white liquid on her brunette hair. “My hair is usually frizzy and bushy. Now it is silky and bouncy.”

Health officials say such smoothing products, often known as Brazilian treatments, may pose a hazard to stylists and users alike. That’s because most of them contain formaldehyde or chemicals that release formaldehyde, which has been identified as a cancer risk.

In its annual report on carcinogens, the National Toxicology Program this year reclassified formaldehyde from a probable carcinogen to a known one.

Several companies that make formaldahyde-based hair smoothing products are under investigation or have been cited for violations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or the Food and Drug Administration for false advertising about their products, and for exposing workers to formaldehyde above legally allowable levels.

Mahshid Hosseini has her hair styled by Adelia Varga, a fan of a smoothing product she found in Brazil four years ago. (Marvin Joseph/WASHINGTON POST)

The Cosmetic Ingredient Review, a panel funded by the cosmetics industry and backed by the FDA, recently stated that, “in the present practices of use and concentration . . . hair smoothing products containing formaldehyde and methylene glycol are unsafe.” The problems noted were high concentration of the chemical, overuse of the hair product and inadequate ventilation during application.

Formaldehyde is a colorless, usually strong-smelling chemical that has been in use for about 70 years as a preservative and binding agent. Think frog floating in a science-class jar, corpses, particleboard, carpets, glue, cosmetics — and hair products.

Formaldehyde can be an irritant and an allergen. Some people’s eyes tear, their noses run and their throats burns. Some experience more-extreme reactions, such as coughing, wheezing or even asthmalike symptoms. And there have been cases of hair loss and vomiting from hair products with high levels of formaldehyde.

As a result, said David Andrews, a scientist for the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, “these [hair] products have been banned in Europe, Canada and Australia.”

OSHA does not regulate the amount of formaldehyde in hair products used in salons. It does, though, stipulate that the air in a salon have no more than 0.75 parts of formaldehyde per million parts (ppm) during an eight-hour shift and no more than 2 ppm during any 15-minute period. Formaldehyde is released into the air when a stylist dries a client’s treated hair with a blow-dryer or straightening iron.

“Our responsibility is to ensure the workplace is free of hazard,” said OSHA’s top official, David Michaels. “Formaldehyde is a hazard.” He estimates that there are 75,000 salons in the United States and about 500,000 people who work in them. OSHA does not track how many of the salons use formaldehyde-based smoothers.

More than zero?

“Relaxers work by breaking the bonds” formed by hair’s keratin proteins, said John Bailey, a former FDA official and former chief scientist for the Personal Care Products Council, a trade association. Doing so allows a stylist to reset the hair as curly or straight and it “stays fixed in the different configuration. Formaldehyde [then] bonds the keratin, or protein, to the hair shaft [in that new configuration] and protects it from losing the effect.”

The FDA recently sent a warning letter to the company that makes Brazilian Blowout, saying it was “misbranding” its product as formaldehyde-free even though it “contains methylene glycol, the liquid form of formaldehyde, which . . . may harm users under the conditions of use prescribed in the labeling.”

Michael Brady, chief executive of Brazilian Blowout, said he doesn’t believe methylene glycol is the same as formaldehyde. “For every scientist who says methylene glycol is the same as formaldehyde, we have a scientist who says it is different,” he said. He does agree that once his product is heated with a blow-dryer or hair iron formaldehyde will be a byproduct, but he says it is well within OSHA emission standards.

The company also sells Brazilian Blowout Zero, which uses a “plant-derived” proprietary bonding system and “releases 0% formaldehyde before, during or after the in-salon smoothing treatment,” according to the company’s Web site.

The OSHA/FDA investigation started a year ago with a complaint from a stylist in Portland, Ore., who used Brazilian Blowout and was “experiencing symptoms such as headaches, nose blood, symptoms consistent with exposure to formaldehyde,” said Melanie Mesaros of Oregon’s OSHA. “We took examples of original product . . . and a range of formaldehyde was found in the products. As far as OSHA is concerned, methylene glycol and formaldehyde are the same, and you have to follow the same rules for exposure.”

Since then, OSHA and its state partners have conducted inspections at approximately 24 salons that use hair smoothers and at nine manufacturers and distributors based on complaints around the country, and have received more than 300 requests for assistance from stylists and salon workers.

OSHA has cited salons in New York and New Jersey and four manufacturers and distributors in Florida for allegedly failing to protect their workers from formaldehyde exposure and for failing to “communicate with the products’ users, such as salons and stylists, about the hazards of formaldehyde exposure,” according to an OSHA press release. The agency said it found “formaldehyde overexposure or dangerous levels” in the air in some salons.

$160 and up

At David’s Beautiful People in Rockville, where Varga works as a stylist, owner David Cohen says he limits the number of Brazilian treatments to two a day so as not to overwhelm his salon with formaldehyde. He also runs a ventilation system and an air purifier at all times.

“I stopped taking appointments for Brazilian treatments online so we didn’t overbook,” he said. Still, his clients are clamoring for the products, which range from $160 for a mild, formaldehyde-free smoother that will last up to six weeks to a $450 treatment with formaldahyde that will last up to six months.

“The true non-formaldehyde formulas are not as good as the low-formaldehyde smoothers,” he said, though “they are a good alternative as long as the client and stylist understand the difference between the two.”

He said he is sure many clients will continue to opt for the formaldehyde formulations unless the government decides they should not be sold anymore. “It’s amazing stuff,” Cohen said. “We do a color treatment, then put on the Brazilian and it keeps the color. It seals the hair.”

Varga acknowledged she is concerned about possible long-term consequences to her health from applying the product day after day. “I use a mask” when putting the liquid on customers’ hair, she said.

The desire for smooth, straight hair can be powerful. “You don’t know how many times my scalp was burned,” said Lori Pemberton, a 43-year-old District resident, remembering the sodium hydroxide, or lye, applied to hair when she was a child. This summer she tried a formaldehyde-based smoothing treatment for the first time. “I prefer this any day,” she said. “This seems a lot easier. My hair is shinier. It’s easier to style. I work out every day. I get up at 5 in the morning. Now my hair isn’t frizzy. My hair stays straight.”

Nor have worries about formaldehyde stopped Laurie Taylor, a 37-year-old recruiting coordinator for a District law firm. She once spent more than 45 minutes a day to blow-dry her hair, put it in rollers and then smooth it with a flatiron. “Now I don’t have to do all those extra steps,” she said. “Today, I woke up, washed it, put it in a bun. It will be wavy, with a soft wave.”

And carcinogens?

“There are so many bad things out there,” she said. “I enjoy my hair. I don’t think too much about it.”

Hambleton is a Washington-based freelance writer and documentary filmmaker.