Brazilian Keratin Treatments


Keratin smoothing treatments, also called Brazilian keratin treatments, originated in Brazil and first appeared in the United States in 2006. Although there are differences in the application, the technology is essentially the same as the process that was first developed in the 60’s to create permanent press fabrics for the textile industry.

Keratin smoothing treatments loosen curl and leave unruly hair smooth and frizz-free. It may seem like a dream come true for those with curly, frizzy and unmanageable hair, but the treatments are not without risk. Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) and the Center for Research in Occupational and Environmental Toxicology (CROET) have concluded that there are meaningful risks from exposure to the high levels of formaldehyde that hairstylists and their customers are exposed to during the process.

Oregon OSHA and CROET have determined that the treatments (marketed under different brand names) contain unacceptable levels of formaldehyde; a known carcinogen as well as an irritant to eyes, lungs and nasal passages. Consumer and stylist complaints have ranged from difficulty breathing to skin irritation and nasal and throat problems.

The section below is from the Oregon OSHA, a Division of the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services and CROET at Oregon Health & Sciences University, report dated October 29, 2010.

The full report is available online at:

A stylist at a Portland area hair salon contacted staff at the Center for Research in Occupational and Environmental Toxicology (CROET) at the Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) as a result of difficulty breathing, nose bleeds and eye irritation when using a popular hair smoothing product. In evaluating the issue, CROET noted that the material safety data sheet (MSDS) accompanying the product listed no hazardous ingredients or impurities. The MSDS also indicated no respiratory hazards or related precautions.

 CROET asked for Oregon OSHA’s assistance in collecting a sample and determining the content of the product. The Oregon OSHA laboratory analyzed the sample using five different test methods. Each of the five separate analyses concluded that formaldehyde was present well above regulated levels, with the quantitative methods producing respective results ranging from 6.3 to 10.6 percent. In analyzing samples of a newer “formaldehyde free” version of the product, Oregon OSHA’s laboratory found it contained roughly 8.5 percent formaldehyde. 

The irritant effects of formaldehyde are well documented, with reports of eye, nose and throat irritation, loss of sense of smell, increased upper respiratory disease, dry and sore throats, respiratory tract irritation, cough, chest pain, shortness of breath and wheezing.

Adverse effects of formaldehyde on the central nervous system include headaches, depression, mood changes, insomnia, irritability and attention deficit. Impaired dexterity, memory and equilibrium have been reported from long-term exposure. Special consideration regarding the exposure of pregnant women is warranted since formaldehyde has been shown to damage DNA.

The heat, up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, from a hairdryer and flat iron causes the aldehyde in the product to form oxymethylene crosslinks and side chains with the amino acids in the hair. These keratinous bonds are responsible for the majority of the softening and smoothing and are stable for three to four months, at which time the hair will revert back to its original configuration. Although the aldehyde does not break disulfide bonds, the extreme heat does break disulfide bonds and accounts for some of the straightening and smoothing.

Unfortunately, the extreme heat also releases aldehyde vapors that present a health hazard to anyone in the room. Even in a well ventilated room, the release of aldehyde vapors could easily exceed the maximum concentration allowed by OSHA of 0.75 parts per million (ppm) over an eight hour period, especially with multiple services.

 The American Conference of Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) notes that “there is a substantial portion of the population, comprising up to 20%, for whom airborne formaldehyde at concentrations on the order of 0.25 to 0.5 ppm is troublesome” and that “it is plausible that a similar proportion (10% to 20%) who are more responsive, may react acutely to formaldehyde at concentrations as low as 0.25 ppm.” ACGIH further states that in consideration of these reports, “individuals who may already be sensitized or otherwise unusually responsive to formaldehyde may not be adequately protected from adverse health effects caused by formaldehyde exposures at or below the recommended Threshold Limit Values (TLV) ceiling of 0.3 ppm.”

 Although formaldehyde has been safely used as a preservative in cosmetics for decades, in 1984, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panelreported that cosmetics containing formaldehyde in excess of 0.2% are not safe.

The CIR report referred to “free” formaldehyde used as a preservative in cosmetics that are applied to the skin, not for the use of formaldehyde as a hardener in nail products. The concentration of formaldehyde needed for nail hardening is higher than 0.2%. The FDA has approved the use of up to 5 % formaldehyde in nail hardeners as long as shields are used to keep the product from touching the skin. The typical levels of formaldehyde used in nail hardeners are well below 5%.

The current safe limits of formaldehyde in cosmetics were intended for its use as a preservative or a nail hardener. They were never intended for solutions that use heat to vaporize the formaldehyde.

Aldehydes may be listed by many different names, including: formaldehyde, Formol, formalin, methanal, morbidic acid, formic aldehyde, methyl aldehyde, oxymethylene, glutaraldehyde, (glyoxal) ethanedial  n-octyl aldehyde, aldehyde C-8, caprylaldehyde.

Chemicals that release formaldehyde are diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, 2-bromo 2-nitropropane-1 (Bronopol), DMDM hydantoin (Glydant), quaternium-15 (Dowicil)

Some products contain formaldehyde’s cousins such as gluteraldehyde or glyoxal and are marketed as formaldehyde free, even though they react in exactly the same manner as formaldehyde. These formaldehyde substitutes expose the stylists and their customers to the exact same health risks as formaldehyde. Although gluteraldehyde or glyoxal are weaker than formaldehyde, they may be used in higher concentrations in order to achieve the same results.

The question has been raised as to whether it is scientifically correct to include methylene glycol when measuring the formaldehyde content of a solution. Based on an understanding of both the chemistry and the toxicology involved, CROET and Oregon OSHA have concluded that it is indeed appropriate to refer to methylene glycol as formaldehyde, finding the distinction to be of no relevance in the context of worker protection.

Methylene glycol is the hydrate formed when formaldehyde is dissolved in water. One molecule of formaldehyde plus one molecule of water equals one molecule of methylene glycol. When the hair is heated and dried, the water evaporates and releases formaldehyde vapors.

The hydrated formaldehyde portion of the solution effectively becomes a reservoir of gaseous formaldehyde. Describing the solution as containing only the amount of gaseous formaldehyde or “free formaldehyde” in the solution distorts the risks and dramatically understates the amount of formaldehyde that is readily available in the solution.

On October 8, 2010, Oregon OSHA issued an advisory suggesting “continued caution by salon workers” and noting that the federal OSHA standard applies not only to gaseous formaldehyde but also to formaldehyde in solution, including methylene glycol.

Salon owners who employ hairstylists have an added liability. Oregon OSHA is advising Oregon salons and stylists that smoothing treatments generally referred to as “Keratin-based treatments” should be treated as formaldehyde-containing products and the requirements of the OSHA Formaldehyde Standard must be followed.

The Formaldehyde Standard requires employers using products above the 0.1 percent threshold to assess actual airborne exposures, as well as to meet other requirements related to personal protective equipment and emergency eyewash, depending upon the exact hazards involved. The Formaldehyde Standard includes additional requirements that are invoked when employees are exposed to airborne levels above an eight-hour average of 0.1 ppm. The employer must institute an annual training program and must provide medical surveillance to employees reporting formaldehyde signs and symptoms. When employees are exposed to levels exceeding the action level or the Short Term Exposure Limit (STEL), the employer also must perform periodic air monitoring and institute a medical surveillance program. When exposures exceed the Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL), the employer must also establish regulated areas and provide respiratory protection.

The variables that affect the level of exposure for hair stylists applying hair smoothing products include the amount of product used, the length of time for each service, the number of services, the type and degree of ventilation, the size of the room and even the configuration of the stations.

Extra caution should be used when handling and storing formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a flammable, colorless gas that is incompatible with oxidizers, alkalis, acids, phenols, and urea. Explosive reactions occur when formaldehyde comes in contact with hydrogen peroxide or haircolor developer.

CROET has received reports of hair loss from consumers who have had the treatment and more than seven or eight repeated applications may cause a non-reversible “plastification” of the hair. The Personal Care Product Council recommends that all keratin treatments be considered unsafe.

If all of this scares you, it should, but there is a bright side. Consumer demand for keratin smoothing treatments continues to grow and manufacturers are scrambling to develop a safe alternative to satisfy that demand.

The textile industry continues to develop promising new technology. In 1992 Haggar first began to employ (1,2-Dimethylol-4,5-dihydroxyethyleneurea) DMDHEU in wrinkle free garments. However, DMDHEU still releases some formaldehyde, so it is not entirely without health risks.

More recently, nanotechnology has been applied to the problem of wrinkles in clothing. In 1998 the Nano-Tex company was formed by chemist David Soane to apply a “nanotechnology” process to fabrics. Rather than coating the fabric with a formaldehyde resin, tiny nano molecules are permanently attached to the fabric. The new nanotechnology is used in clothes sold under major brands such as Dockers, Eddie Bauer, The Gap, Perry Ellis and Old Navy. It should come as no surprise that this technology would eventually be applied to keratin smoothing treatments and one cosmetic company already claims to use nano-technology in their keratin smoothing treatment.

Another newly reformulated “formaldehyde free” keratin smoothing treatment contains a thio compound similar to those used in permanent waving. Several other keratin smoothing treatments now claim to have “formaldehyde free” formulas, but since most companies aren’t willing to share proprietary information, many of the details are still rather vague.

One thing is clear, the technology for keratin smoothing treatments is still in its infancy and it’s changing fast. Stay tuned for the latest changes as they develop. I promise to keep you informed.

We welcome your comments and questions.



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