Lawsuit against FDA targets formaldehyde in hair care products

SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) -- Two environmental groups are suing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over a chemical used in hair straightening products.

Women's Voices for the Earth and the Environmental Working Group have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, arguing that beauty salon workers have reported "burning eyes, breathing problems, headaches, dizziness and blurred vision" after applying hair straightening treatment.

The lawsuit accuses the FDA of failing to protect the public from dangers from formaldehyde, one of the ingredients used in hair straightening products.

Critics say salon workers have complained that handling these chemicals have caused them health problems.

One hair stylist in San Francisco, however, defended the use of straightening products that contain formaldehyde.

At Salon DNA in downtown San Francisco, stylists say 60 percent of their clients come visit the shop to get their hair straightened. And one of the products they use is the popular brand called "Brazilian Blowout."

It contains formaldehyde, which is also known as methylene glycol.

"If you do it the proper way with the proper precautions, it's totally fine," said Marlon Ramos, a stylist at the San Francisco salon. "I've been doing it for 12 years (and) I've never ever had any problems."

"There's been an ongoing investigation since 2011 and they still haven't come to us to say whether or not they think Brazilian Blowout should in fact stay on the shelves," says Erin Switalski, executive director of Women's Voices for the Earth.

Straightening products like Brazilian Blowout work when they are applied to hair then heated with blow dryers and straightening irons.

Critics say the high temperatures of hair styling tools cause the release of formaldehyde into the air and that constant exposure to the chemical by salon workers creates the health hazard.

"We have a right to know what is in these products," Switalski said. "And you really need to look into the health hazards of these formaldehyde straightening products."

The FDA says it doesn't comment on pending litigation and has limited authority to issue warning letters to manufacturers and the public.

Ramos said he knows the potential hazards of formaldehyde but that he takes precautions by using gloves and works near a window for ventilation. He said he also uses a vacuum to absorb the formaldehyde fumes.

"Everything has formaldehyde," Ramos said. "Nail polish has formaldehyde. Makeup has formaldehyde. A lot of things we use day-by-day has formaldehyde."

When asked why he doesn't use straightening products that don't contain the chemical, he said they are ineffective.

"I've tried the ones without formaldehyde (and) they don't work," Ramos said.

He said the chemical makes the straightening process last for about 3 months. And he said he provides his clients with a face mask if the chemical bothers them.

Environmentalists say other countries such as Canada, France and Ireland have removed products with high levels of formaldehyde from the shelves.

By KTVU reporter Amber Lee.        

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