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Hair, Formaldehyde, and Industrial Hygiene

Categories: Chemicals, Exposure, Service Sector, Small Business, Wholesale and Retail Trade, Women

photo of a woman's hair being straightenedEven if you’re not particularly fashion conscious, it’s been pretty hard to miss hearing about the Brazilian Blowout smoothing solution over the past year. Imagining a 10% solution of methylene glycol/formaldehyde being applied, dried, and flat-ironed on hair in a salon is enough to make most industrial hygienists cringe. Until recently, comments about the same product from a fashion-conscious, non-industrial hygienist might have been, “I love the product,” or, “It really tames unmanageable hair.”

On January 30, 2012, the California Attorney General announced a settlement with the manufacturer of Brazilian Blowout products that requires the company to warn consumers and hair stylists that two of their most popular hair-smoothing products emit formaldehyde gas. The terms of the settlement require accurate disclosure in material safety data sheets and labels, distribution of precautionary use measures, and cessation of false advertising. Penalties of $600,000 were also imposed on the manufacturer.

Oregon was the first state to address this issue through an award-winning communication campaign. From the very start of this collective response within Oregon in August of 2010 between a salon, the Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology (CROET) at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), and Oregon OSHA, the common goal was to ensure that stylists working with Brazilian Blowout and similar hair products were informed about the risks of formaldehyde exposure and the need for proper protection. In the early months of our work, CROET learned that many stylists and salons chose Brazilian Blowout solution because it was advertised and labeled as “formaldehyde free” and “containing no harsh chemicals.” The material safety data sheet listed no hazardous ingredients. Many stylists suffered classic formaldehyde exposure symptoms such as burning eyes, nose and throat, and breathing difficulty, which for some seriously disrupted their ability to continue working in salons where the product was being used. With this California settlement, perhaps now all salons and stylists using this product will more seriously consider the consequences of formaldehyde exposure.

Yes, we can create safe working conditions when working around formaldehyde. The “Hierarchy of Controls,” however, reminds us to first consider removing or substituting hazardous exposures. We know that when we reduce the use of toxic materials in the workplace our costs, represented by what we pay for training, air monitoring, elaborate ventilation systems, personal protective equipment, and ultimately potential health impact, decreases.  This has encouraged a move toward the development of safer products in all industries. In September of 2011, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Board determined, based on review of toxicological data, that hair-smoothing products should not contain methylene glycol/formaldehyde because of the increased exposure potential caused by the heat used during the smoothing process. Even with the recent California settlement, those working on campaigns for safer products in cosmetics question why formaldehyde-containing hair smoothers continue to be allowed in the United States, given the CIR determination.

What have we learned during our formaldehyde campaign?

  • Certainly, we have been reminded of the importance of our almost 30-year-old Hazard Communication Standard. When toxic ingredients are not disclosed, we cannot be protective employers or informed consumers.
  • We were also made painfully aware that occupational guidelines and standards are very confusing to the public. It is difficult to articulate, for example, that while OSHA fines may not be levied for exposures just below the Permissible Exposure Limits, such concentrations aren’t necessarily “safe.” As health and safety professionals, researchers, and regulators, we need to learn to share messages that are as clear and simple as possible, using our partnerships to help us deliver a consistent message.
  • And finally, our encounters with social media on this issue reminded us about its power in delivering messages, and the challenges for followers to determine accuracy and truth online. We learned how important it is to connect with key messengers within our stakeholder communities, as we share our message that stylists, like all other employees in all other workplaces, are equally deserving of a healthy and safe workplace.

—Dede Montgomery, MS, CIH

Ms. Montgomery is an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist at the Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology (CROET) at Oregon Health and Science University.  CROET houses the Oregon Healthy Workforce Center, a NIOSH Center of Excellence for a Healthier Workforce.


Oregon OSHA and CROET at OHSU (2010). “Keratin-Based” Smoothing Products and the Presence of Formaldehyde.”

Emerging Issues and Alerts: Salon Hair Products

OSHA Hazard Alert – Hair Smoothing Products That Could Release Formaldehyde.

NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluation, HETA_11-0014_Interim_Letter (2011).

Cosmetic Ingredient Review, Final Ingredient Review, Formaldehyde; Cosmetic Ingredients Found Safe, with qualification.  

Oregon OSHA and CROET Win Spotlight Award – Oregon and the Workplace Blog

Follow CROET on Twitter.

Public Comments

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

  1. February 10, 2012 at 10:55 am ET  -   Lorrie

    Sadly there is a group of disrespected dentists who use formaldehyde in ROOT CANALS and pediatric dentists who use it to treat baby teeth. Myself and another lady were seriously injured from root canals and the dental regulatory boards and FDA know about it and have done nothing. Since it is considered really bad and malpractice most dentists pay off injured patients so the extent is not known. Someone needs to scream this from the mountain tops. Root canals can seemingly be done correctly but problems occur months to years down the road. Anyone up for helping us stop this too? Its scary what people use on us without our knowledge. Thanks.

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  2. February 15, 2012 at 2:09 pm ET  -   GB

    ABC News has posted one of their reports on YouTube [] about Brazilian Blowout. They test the product and talk to an Oregon OSHA scientist about the formaldehyde issue. It’s a nice companion to what Ms. Montgomery has written here.

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    • AUTHOR COMMENT February 19, 2012 at 5:45 pm ET  -   Dede Montgomery

      Thanks for the comment and sharing the link from “Good Morning America.” The GMA interview is of Michael Wood, Administrator of Oregon OSHA filmed at Oregon OSHA’s Lab in Portland. We were all amazed and not fully prepared for the amount of press coverage the issue received in late 2010, running the gamut from the New York and LA Times and NPR, to Cosmopolitan magazine and Inside Edition.

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  3. February 16, 2012 at 9:39 pm ET  -   Brenda Allen

    As a Cosmetology instructor , I’m glad to have this information to give to my students who are the new up coming hairdressers. We are all becoming so health conscience, chemicals can be very dangerous to our health. Thankyou for the info. sincerely Brenda Allen

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    • AUTHOR COMMENT February 23, 2012 at 11:36 am ET  -   Dede Montgomery

      Thanks for your feedback, Brenda. In Oregon and some other states, occupational health specialists have been partnering with cosmetology schools in efforts to ensure that students get information they need to best protect their health on the job. This has included the consultative arm of Oregon OSHA and the Oregon Healthy Nail Collaborative ( Federal OSHA and NIOSH are also developing good resources. This web page on “Beauty and Salon” ( is a pretty comprehensive listing of pertinent publications and other organizations doing good work related to healthy salon work.

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  4. February 17, 2012 at 4:15 pm ET  -   Michael Wood

    While I agree that the Good Morning America piece is a good companion to the issues Dede Montgomery discusses, I should probably mention that the Oregon OSHA representative interviewed (me) is not a scientist. That interview, and certainly our later joint report with OHSU’s CROET (the first of the links in the post above), were all based on a sound understanding of the science and solid analytical work by our laboratory (which is nationally accredited and staffed by very capable chemists). But my degree is in English and Political Science. Since that interview aired I have occasionally found myself using the line “I’m not a scientist, but I play one on TV.”

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  5. February 19, 2012 at 10:58 am ET  -   KHeff

    My husband and I noticed that our daughter’s detangler contains anti-freeze. Can someone suggest more natural alternatives which work?

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  6. February 21, 2012 at 8:27 am ET  -   idroes im

    hair campaign for modis need more tips and trick, we can elaborate information, thaks so much.
    Idroes im
    Jakarta, Indonesia

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  7. February 21, 2012 at 1:57 pm ET  -   Michael Wood

    When you say “anti-freeze,” what are you actually seeing on the label?

    A common component of anti-freeze is “ethylene glycol,” but I don’t know that it’s using in hair treatments (could well be, I suppose). “Methylene glycol” is the term several companies (including the makers of Brazilian Blowout) prefer to refer to what most of the rest of us would call hydrated formaldehyde or formaldehyde in solution.

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  8. February 22, 2012 at 5:02 pm ET  -   Alexandra Scranton, WVE

    Hair detanglers do commonly contain propylene glycol (which is also an ingredient in some anti-freeze). I’d recommend looking at the EWG SkinDeep Database which rates thousands of personal care products based on the potential health impacts of their ingredients.
    The database currently rates over 75 detanglers (or similar conditioner products) and includes many alternatives that do not contain propylene glycol The link is: []
    Interestingly, for the detanglers that do contain propylene glycol, that isn’t generally the most toxic chemical in the product.
    Note: The database doesn’t address the effectiveness of the product though, so you’ll have to try out the alternatives to see what works best for your hair.

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  9. February 22, 2012 at 7:36 pm ET  -   Stacy Malkan

    Thank you Dede for this important post. I’d like to share some helpful resources for finding safer alternatives to chemical straighteners. Here’s a great link on EWG’s website for best options for hair straightening: []

    For more tips on safer products, also see the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website at [] and EWG’s Skin Deep at []

    Stacy Malkan

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    • AUTHOR COMMENT March 8, 2012 at 5:26 pm ET  -   Blog Coordinator

      Please note that references to products or services do not constitute an endorsement by NIOSH or the U.S. government.

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  10. March 1, 2012 at 9:38 pm ET  -   Kenneth Thomas

    What troubles me is that these products really work and for some people frizzy hair can be a curse. Is there some way these products can be used safely?

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    • AUTHOR COMMENT March 5, 2012 at 3:45 pm ET  -   Dede Montgomery

      Thank you, Kenneth, for asking such an important question. It is possible to protect the stylist by using ventilation systems that capture the hazardous gases and vapors at the source. The salon needs to train their stylists to use the ventilation systems correctly. They also need to provide appropriate hazard communication training, to make sure the stylists are wearing gloves and protective glasses, and to provide for regular maintenance of the ventilation systems. They also should test the air to ensure that everything is working correctly. Salons continuing to use these products need a medical program to be sure that the stylists are not having health symptoms resulting from their exposure. We have concern that months after the initial hazard warnings from OSHA and FDA, few salons are providing systems such as I described above. It is not clear that Salons believe or understand the warnings. It is important to note that salon employees and clients exposed to formaldehyde and methylene glycol may be at risk of developing leukemia and nasopharyngeal cancer, which may take years to manifest and may occur without having acute symptoms.

      I know that many stylists are using other products that do not contain methylene glycol/formaldehyde, and though they may not work as well or in the same way as methylene glyclo/formaldehyde-containing products, stylists are finding ways to use them successfully.

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  11. March 7, 2012 at 12:50 pm ET  -   Sarah Green

    Hi Debe

    Can you suggest more natural alternatives which work? We are all becoming so health conscience, chemicals can be very dangerous to our health.

    Any Recommendation?



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    • AUTHOR COMMENT March 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm ET  -   Dede Montgomery

      Thank you for your comment. Please see comment 9 above for resources.

      Link to this comment

  12. March 11, 2012 at 10:32 am ET  -   Olivia Schroeder

    Most of the information/MSDS regarding safe practices for hair smoothing products includes proper/adequate salon ventilation or local exhaust ventilation but never explains what that means. Opening windows/doors or using fans will only help to circulate the vapors and dusts to the entire salon. Proper/adequate ventilation for salons performing keratin hair smoothing treatments (as well as other salon chemical services such as hair dyes, perms & nail treatments) can be obtained using “salon source capture ventilation” (or sometimes referred to as “chemical source capture ventilation”) to lower the exposure of vapors & dust to the breathing zones of the stylist and client to a safe level.
    A great side benefit is they eliminate the majority of odors accompanied by these services. They are portable so it is easy for stylists to split the cost and share one of these systems.
    The federal OSHA office continues to investigate the safety of hair smoothing products and is a good source for information. In addition, the Professional Keratin Hair Smoothing Council recently released updated information for stylists doing these treatments.

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  13. March 13, 2012 at 3:47 pm ET  -   lsmeans3

    The comments and research is about the hazards to the salon stylists/employees, but what about the person who is having these products applied directly to their hair and scalp? What is the research indicating for those individuals who have had chemicals or straighteners applied to their hair and scalp over a time span that may exceed 20 or 30 years?

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    • AUTHOR COMMENT March 16, 2012 at 11:45 am ET  -   Dede Montgomery

      Both NIOSH and the Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology (CROET) focus on hazards faced by workers, in this case, salon workers who may use these products multiple times a day.

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates cosmetics, including hair smoothing products if they are marketed on a retail basis to consumers. The following is from the FDA website
      FDA’s Advice to Consumers
      Skin sensitivity can develop after repeated contact with formaldehyde-related ingredients. When formaldehyde is released into the air it can cause serious irritation of your eyes, nose and lungs. It is recommended that you limit your exposure to products that contain formaldehyde-related ingredients to reduce these health risks.

      Additionally, the followings links may of interest
      The NYC Health Department Consumer Alert
      OSHA Product Alert Leads to Better Consumer Protection

      Link to this comment

  14. March 14, 2012 at 10:42 am ET  -   Lynn Van Gilder

    Would like an answer to the above comment ASAP!

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  15. March 15, 2012 at 8:50 am ET  -   Kim

    I am so glad that I did not purchase any of their products. However, the products have satisfying result…according to the demo that I encounter during a presentation.

    Link to this comment

  16. May 8, 2012 at 2:43 am ET  -   agung

    I’m glad to have this information to give to my students who are the new up coming hairdressers. We are all becoming so health conscience, chemicals can be very dangerous to our health.

    Link to this comment

  17. May 8, 2012 at 7:03 am ET  -   Jeff Cardarella

    Keratin Hair Smoothing Salon Ventilation

    The salon industry is notorious for having improper ventilation in place to protect salon
    workers from overexposure to salon chemical vapors, mists and dusts. An incomplete
    understanding of salon ventilation control measures and OSHA regulatory requirements
    are factors which often contribute to respiratory illness of hair stylists who are exposed
    to airborne chemical contaminants on a daily basis. Recent advancements in salon
    ventilation technologies have been introduced to the salon industry, which when used
    and maintained properly, can allow salon workers to provide all types of salon chemical
    services in a safe working environment without compromising their health.
    There are two types of ventilation:
    Source capture ventilation is designed to capture salon chemical vapors and dusts at
    or near its source, protecting the hair stylists’ breathing zone, and preventing inhalation
    of, or dispersing of contaminants into the salon air.
    General exhaust ventilation (also called dilution ventilation) is different from source
    capture ventilation because instead of capturing emissions at their source and removing
    them from the air, general exhaust ventilation allows the chemical vapors & dusts to be
    emitted into the salon air and breathing zone of the hair stylist, and then possibly
    inhaled into the cosmetologist’s respiratory system. General ventilation then dilutes the
    concentration of contaminants to an acceptable level.
    Salon ventilation has become a hot topic with the introduction of keratin hair smoothing
    services. Formaldehyde vapors are released into the air when heat is applied during
    blow drying and flat ironing of the hair, as well as during application of keratin hair
    smoothing products which contain formaldehyde releasing ingredients. Repeated
    overexposure to formaldehyde vapors can cause “sensory irritation”, (i.e. burning /
    watery eyes, scratchy throat and runny nose). Other symptoms may include difficulty
    breathing, occupation-related asthma and other related skin allergic sensitivity.

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  18. May 28, 2012 at 1:28 pm ET  -   Anna Kossak

    As a person professionally engaged in the sale of cosmetics, I found here really valuable content that I can convey to your customers. Research in the field of cosmetics in Poland are carried out on a smaller scale. With service like this I find really interesting information about the hair.
    Hair turns out to be a complex process. Sam I am a distributor of cosmetics, hairdressing

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  19. June 16, 2012 at 12:45 pm ET  -   jannet

    I see the need for more open debate on this issue. These harmful products should not be allowed to continue in the market. Further research needs to done. Thanks for an alert.

    Link to this comment

  20. June 22, 2012 at 5:50 am ET  -   Brazilian Blowout

    Certainly a fantastic piece of work … It has relevant information. Thanks for posting this. Your blog is so interesting and very informative.Thanks sharing. Definitely a great piece of work Thanks for your work.

    Link to this comment

  21. June 25, 2012 at 10:36 am ET  -   brian

    I would not let selling such dangerous products to market only to be more beautiful! People should accept it as is without change, and artificial transformations unnecessary.

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  22. July 29, 2012 at 7:29 pm ET  -   taah

    Warning the public about a product containing formaldehyde is good. But knowing that formaldehyde is a potential carcinogen, why can’t governments ban their use in products. I think banning will force manufactures and chemists to come up with a substitute that will be safer to both humans and the environment.

    Link to this comment

  23. September 20, 2012 at 7:17 pm ET  -   Daniel

    Wow it’s good to know someone is watching out for the rest of us.
    Thanks for the useful information

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  24. October 6, 2012 at 12:21 pm ET  -

    I’m so glad finally something was done about harmful chemicals/gasses that are used and are omitted by many many products, Hopefully a worldwide ‘standard’ will soon come to be.People need to know and be protected from harmful products.

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  25. October 29, 2012 at 8:47 pm ET  -   Jessy_Bill

    Thank you very much for this useful information! I am really happy that such a great research has been made. All these chemical that we use trying to look pretty and fabulous, sometimes can lead to the opposite. I gotta admit, that I am a hair junkie. I love to try new products and services, and of course I tied numerous of keratin treatments, until I found out that the one I was using – Brazilian Blowout was sued, because the level of the formaldehyde they claimed was not correct. They said NO formaldehyde, but in fact, there was 10% of it. I still use keratin treatment (not brazilian blowout), because I have crazy hair and keratin treatment is the only thing that helps. After years of researching, I finally was able to find one I really like, and what is more important it is safe! It’s called QOD Keratin. I really-really like it.

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  26. June 4, 2013 at 7:07 pm ET  -   Susan Beech

    As someone who works in the field of industrial hygiene ( I work for I have seen so many industries have similar issues with products like the hair industry with the blowout chemicals. I’m happy to see Oregon’s success with getting the information to salons as well as stylists and hope the other states across the nation take the initiative to protect Americans from the formaldehyde gas released from this salon treatment.

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  27. June 9, 2013 at 5:35 am ET  -   Natural hair products

    Thanks for sharing such a informative blog about how we care our hairs and today this is a large problem. Also use better oil and shampoo in your hair for better solutions.

    Link to this comment

  28. September 16, 2013 at 5:21 am ET  -   tony

    I see the need for more open debate on this issue. These harmful products should not be allowed to continue in the market. Further research needs to done. Thanks for an alert.

    Link to this comment

  29. February 6, 2014 at 6:40 am ET  -   MarkS

    Surely there is a more natural way to do this?

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  30. February 12, 2014 at 7:26 pm ET  -   Luka

    Yeah im also thinking there must be more natual way to do it. For example on Body perm you can check, and you will get alot of usefull information.

    Link to this comment

  31. February 28, 2014 at 4:00 am ET  -   ReignCurls

    This article just proves how important it is to use natural products to take care of your hair. The results may not be as permanent but they will not impact your health. Thanks for this.

    Link to this comment

  32. May 13, 2014 at 6:26 pm ET  -   dentales

    I am totally agree about the need for more open debate on this issue.

    These products should be allways under control in the market.

    Congratulations for the article

    Link to this comment

  33. May 30, 2014 at 7:14 pm ET  -   Edie Keel

    WOW! I am a Cosmetologist and I live in Texas. I have heard a lot about the “Brazilian Blow Out” and the lawsuits regarding their safety BUT I had no idea the effects formaldehyde mixed with heat would have. I mean, it doesn’t sound good anyways but I have read some of the comments in here as well, one being that “salon employees and clients exposed to formaldehyde and methylene glycol may be at risk of developing leukemia and nasopharyngeal cancer” That alone should be enough reason for it to be completely banned in the United States (everywhere really), we have enough issues with cancer and not understanding where it comes from or how to cure it, why would we purposely cause it all just for the sake of vanity?!? this is really scary stuff, thanks for the education….

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  34. June 23, 2014 at 5:43 am ET  -   Charlotte

    Thanks for posting hair, formaldehyde, and Industrial hygiene this tip. Thanks for informative health blog. ? I have a mission that I am simply now working on.

    Link to this comment

  35. August 21, 2014 at 10:37 pm ET  -   Jesica Joe

    My husband and I noticed that our daughter’s detangler contains anti-freeze. Can someone suggest more natural alternatives which work?

    Link to this comment

  36. September 8, 2014 at 3:11 am ET  -   Short Hair Salons

    Nice post about Hair, Formaldehyde, and Industrial Hygiene

    Link to this comment

  37. September 18, 2014 at 5:30 am ET  -   Jennifer

    Thank your share, I like your blog very much,

    Link to this comment

  38. September 21, 2014 at 11:51 am ET  -   Gloria

    It seems today to improve our image we ignore our health or that of others. Maybe we should revisit our hair and our bodies in general, with traditional remedies based on that nature provides us.

    Good article.

    Link to this comment

  39. November 9, 2014 at 9:32 pm ET  -   Paige Smith

    Formaldehyde – can this cause hair loss too? or are there any "hair loss treatment" that has ingredients on it?

    Link to this comment

    • AUTHOR COMMENT November 10, 2014 at 1:33 pm ET  -   Dede Montgomery

      The U.S. FDA and Health Canada responded to inquiries regarding hair loss following the use of formaldehyde-containing hair products by consumers. The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization, has also published articles on this topic. This NIOSH blog focuses on the exposures to stylists rather than consumers. A Safety Data Sheet (SDS) may be available on-line from the product producer or distributor. The ingredients, such as formaldehyde and methylene glycol, may be listed on the SDS. The product container should also list the ingredients. Unfortunately companies don’t always list all of the active ingredients.

      Link to this comment

  40. December 9, 2014 at 6:41 am ET  -   Stanley High School Online

    Really well defined work you have shared here Thanks alot for sharing.

    Link to this comment

  41. February 4, 2015 at 10:30 am ET  -   jessica

    thank you for sharing that very important imformation with me and my classmates.

    Link to this comment

  42. June 25, 2015 at 10:09 am ET  -   Tom Cae

    A Safety Data Sheet (SDS) may be available on-line from the product producer or distributor. The ingredients, such as formaldehyde and methylene glycol, may be listed on the SDS. The product container should also list the ingredients. Unfortunately companies don’t always list all of the active ingredients.

    Link to this comment

  43. July 21, 2015 at 4:39 am ET  -   VK Shah

    I run a Fashion and modelling website from India.Interesting to know about the effects of formaldehyde on Hair.

    Link to this comment

  44. August 21, 2015 at 1:14 pm ET  -   Aditya

    Extremely useful info. Thanks for sharing the great article. I am dabbling as a hair styling studio owner, so am interested in knowing what are the alternatives to formaldehyde that can be used for mainstream application.



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  45. September 21, 2015 at 7:10 pm ET  -   The Core 94!

    Get harmful products off the market. I find it upsetting that these are even allowed. I would love to speak with anyone with real knowledge on the potential damages of formaldehyde on my radio station

    Link to this comment

  46. September 28, 2015 at 11:12 pm ET  -   Label Baju Murah

    Amazing! I am a Cosmetologist and I live in Texas. I have heard a ton about the “Brazilian Blow Out” and the claims in regards to their security BUT I had no clue the impacts formaldehyde blended with warmth would have. That is to say, it doesn’t sound great at any rate however I have perused a remarks’ portion in here too, one being that “salon workers and customers presented to formaldehyde and methylene glycol may be at danger of creating leukemia and nasopharyngeal growth” That alone ought to be sufficient explanation behind it to be totally banned in the United States (all over truly), we have enough issues with malignancy and not understanding where it originates from or how to cure it, why might we deliberately precipitate it all only for the purpose of vanity?!? this is truly startling stuff, a debt of gratitude is in order for the training…

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