Don’t worry, I’m not going to subject you to Milady’s somewhat mind-numbing explanations of the three tiers of decontamination that should be used in a salon or spa. (But in case you’re wondering, they are sterilization, disinfection, and sanitation, and I have them down cold.)
Instead, I’m going to be all timely and share this little tidbit, from Milady’s Standard Fundamentals for Estheticians, page 44 (in a red box marked with a big exclamation point, so you know it’s important).
CAUTION: In the past, formalin, a solution of formaldehyde in water, was recommended as a disinfectant and fumigant in dry cabinet sanitizers. However, formalin is not safe for salon use. Formaldehyde, a pungent gas, is a suspected cancer-causing agent. It is poisonous when inhaled and is extremely irritating to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. It can also cause skin allergies, irritation, dryness and rash. After long-term use, formaldehyde vapors can cause symptoms similar to chronic bronchitis or asthma. These symptoms usually worsen over time with continued exposure.
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 Lemondrop.com, if you need the backstory. (Nadine Jolie has also been doing a lot of great coverage on this.)
Brazilian Blowout is disputing the test results, saying their own testing reveals no formaldehyde, and the chemical in question is actually something called methylene glycol. But their products have already been recalled in Canada. And the federal Occupational Safety and Health Association views both formalin and methylene glycol as “synonyms for formaldehyde.” The reason they’re so interchangeable is that they both off-gas formaldehyde, especially when you heat them up. Like when you’re applying a hair straightening treatment with a super hot flat iron. Oregon OSHA is now conducting air monitoring studies in salons during the treatment and the initial results show formaldehyde levels that could produce the kinds of medical symptoms documented in Oregon salon workers.
Anyway, big picture? This isn’t the first time we’ve found formaldehyde in beauty products and I’m betting it won’t be the last. Let me take you back to 2006, when the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found formaldehyde lurking in most major brands of nail hardeners, including OPI, Orly, and Sally Hansen. All three brands say they have since reformulated (and also ditched fellow toxins toluene and dibutyl phthalate), though OPI still offers its nail hardeners in formaldehyde-containing and formaldehyde-free versions. Spoiling you for choice and what not.
But when I asked Doug Schoon (then vice president of Creative Nail Design, now the scientific consultant who Brazilian Blowout has trotted out to dispute the testing) to explain what formaldehyde was doing in nail polish (again, this was back in 2006), here’s what he told me:
Formaldehyde is not even really used in nail products. It’s a gas, and when they do studies on formaldehyde, they’re doing studies on the gas. But we use formalin. Formalin is formaldehyde dissolved in water. This changes its chemical structure, and it becomes a completely different chemical. And it’s only used in nail hardeners. We put a tiny, tiny trace of formalin in the nail polish, usually around .001 percent or less. Very very tiny tiny amount. Not even enough to harden your nails. But that tiny tiny trace amount, that’s what people are calling formaldehyde. It’s not formaldehyde, it’s formalin, and small residual amounts of that. [...] A lot of manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon and are saying their products are formaldehyde-free. But instead they’re using an inferior resin, it might be okay for the consumer sector, but it doesn’t work as well in the professional sector. We decided that since it is obviously not an issue, obviously safe. that we will continue to use it because it is not a problem.
Anyone else seeing some major irony when you compare this “formaldehyde is so not a big deal” rhetoric from 2006 with the Milady’s warning above? Bear in mind that Milady’s is the textbook publisher responsible for educating 90 percent of salon professionals working today — their curriculums are used in almost every beauty school in the country and are considered the gold standard in beauty education. And here’s the best part: My textbook was published in 2004.
Which means the beauty industry knew formaldehyde/formalin (and I’m betting, methylene glycol, too) was “not safe for salon use”well before it got caught using it. In salons.
However this current drama unfolds, we know that plenty of hair straighteners, nail polishes and other beauty products have and will continue to contain these formaldehyde synonym chemicals.
Not because the beauty industry is so convinced that they’re safe. Just because they can.