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Brazilian Blowout Treatment Tangled in Controversy

Oregon Health & Science University study says formula contains formaldehyde.

The professional hair-smoothing treatment called Brazilian Blowout — one of the biggest innovations in the salon industry in the last decade — is enmeshed in a controversy that calls into question the safety of ingredients used in its popular salon service. Accusations that the formula contains formaldehyde — classified as a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — has sparked a backlash from several high-profile salons and consumers clamoring for independent lab testing of the product’s formula.

This story first appeared in the October 8, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The dustup began after the Oregon Health & Science University’s Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology last week released lab results that indicated the Brazilian Blowout formula contained formaldehyde. The tests were conducted after stylists at two Portland-based salons complained of eye irritation, nose burning and other symptoms, and submitted samples of the product from their salons to the center. Results showed that formulations of Brazilian Blowout contained between 4.85 percent and 10.6 percent formaldehyde.

The company, Brazilian Blowout LLC of Hollywood, markets the straightening treatment as formaldehyde free on its Web site and promotional materials. Its manufacturer, Cadiveu Brasil, also touts the formulas as formaldehyde free.

The 90-minute hair straightening process involves clarifying the hair with shampoo, applying the formula strand by strand, followed by blow-drying and flat-ironing the hair.

Brazilian Blowout chief executive officer Mike Brady and co-president and salon owner Devin Semler told WWD in an exclusive interview Thursday that its own recent tests conducted by Acc U Bio-Chem Labs of Glendale, Calif., showed formaldehyde levels ranging from 0.00049 percent to 0.49 percent. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), an industry organization charged with assessing the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics, has declared that in order for a beauty product to be considered safe it should contain 0.2 percent of free formaldehyde or below. Prior to this test, the firm was going by results performed by Cadiveu Brasil, which is based in the South American country, which showed even lower levels of formaldehyde, 0.0002 percent.

Brady said that if the formaldehyde levels found in Oregon are true, then the finger should be pointed to its manufacturer, Cadiveu Brasil.

Patty Schmucker, a consultant for Cadiveu USA, a U.S. counterpart of the Brazilian firm which was formed three months ago, said the results found in Orgeon are a result of Brazilian Blowout tampering with formulas.

Brady denied this accusation.

Currently, at least two California-based governmental agencies are looking into the formulas of the Hollywood-based company, and the alleged threat it may pose to stylists. At press time, Health Canada, a federal department based in Ottawa, issued an advisory that tests conducted by the organization found the Brazilian Blowout solution contains 12 percent formaldehyde.

Alan Andersen, the director of CIR, said the organization has received numerous complains about hair-smoothing treatments, but he had not seen any figures about the formulas until the Oregon Health & Science University’s results were released.

“I think those numbers are to be believed,” said Andersen. “At high levels, one of the things that likely could be noticed is nasal irritation. Ten percent is well above the danger level.”

Brady said on Friday he is meeting with a scientist who he hopes will be able to explain the varying levels of formaldehyde found in his formulas.

“I am very concerned because I want to do everything right,” Brady said, adding that what may be his only choice going forward is to sever ties with Cadiveu and establish his own, U.S.-based, FDA-regulated manufacturing plant that would batch test every shipment.

In the last week, salon reaction to the test results have ranged wildly, with some businesses cutting the service, which costs between $350 and $500, to others cutting back on the number of treatments it offers per week, adding carbon filters and fans, and suggesting stylists wear masks to protect them from fumes.

In a move that casts a doubt on the formula’s “formaldehyde free” claim, Frédéric Fekkai salons removed Brazilian Blowout from its service menu in September, just several months after offering it at each location. Its parent company, Procter & Gamble Co., had tested the formula and found levels of formaldehyde.

“We wanted to make sure this product was living up to its claims,” said P&G spokesman Brent Miller on why the company tested the formula. “The product billed itself as formaldehyde free. Our testing showed that it contained high levels of formaldehyde and, as a result, we no longer offer the treatment,” he said, adding there was a substantive difference between the level deemed safe by CIR and the level of formaldehyde found in the Brazilian Blowout. “We feel very confident in our science,” said Miller. P&G would not comment on the results of its in-house testing. Industry sources said the company found formaldehyde levels many times above the accepted amount. Fekkai salons currently do not offer any type of chemical hair smoothing treatment and has no plans to do so until a safe alternative is developed.

Hairstylist John Barrett also has dropped the treatment, posting a sign in his Manhattan salon on Oct. 1 announcing his salon had stopped offering the Brazilian Blowout service until further investigation of the formulas were conducted.

“This is not just a miracle product. This is a very addictive miracle product,” said Barrett of the treatment he described as “life changing” for women with frizzy, unruly hair. He said his salon used to perform about 10 to 15 treatments per week at $500 a pop. Pulling the product from his service list was an easy decision in that the utmost priority is the safety of his stylists and clients. But, stylists at his salon are disappointed that a major revenue generator has been cut off. “A lot of them are quite glum at the moment,” said Barrett. “This is a revenue source. I am not happy about giving it up but obviously health concerns are more important.”

Michael Angelo of Michael Angelo’s Wonderland Beauty Parlor in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District said he continues to offer the treatment, but that the controversy makes it “a really scary and stressful time as a salon owner,” as the service helped his salon — and others — “pay the rent during the recession” because of its loyal following and high price. “But Brazilian Blowout is standing behind their product and is saying everything is formaldehyde free. And we are acting as a trusting vendor but it puts us in an awfully compromised position. So we are being honest and telling our clients the news that is out there and letting them choose whether they want it or not,” said Angelo. Asked whether clients still want the service after learning of recent reports, Angelo said, “Oh, totally!”

In light of the recent investigation, the Pierre Michel salon continues to offer the service but has limited the number of days each week the product will be used, said Dror Kraft, a certified Brazilian Blowout expert at the salon. Pierre Michel has also brought in carbon filters, a move that Kraft said “has made a huge difference” in the air quality during a service. He explained that during the service he always asks clients to close their eyes during certain portions of it to avoid eye irritation. A fan at the base of the client’s chair also blows away any emitted gasses, he said. Despite the test results from Oregon’s OSHA, Kraft said that his clients still want the service: “The clients don’t care. They want it done. It is a life changer.”

Confusing the matter is the apparent newfound competition between Brazilian Blowout and Cadiveu USA. Schmucker at Cadiveu USA said the company is now the exclusive importer of Cadiveu products. Brazilian Blowout’s Brady countered with the claim that he received product from them as recently as August. However, his order placed last week was accepted and then cancelled by Cadiveu, he said.

The history between the two entities harkens back to five years ago, when Semler’s Sherman Oaks, Calif., salon, Argyle Salon & Spa, began offering a hair straightening service manufactured by Cadiveu Brasil. The service quickly became very popular and soon Semler saw a business opportunity. In 2006, he established Brazilian Blowout LLC to serve as the exclusive distributor of the treatment in California, which Semler then also named Brazilian Blowout. After a year, Brazilian Blowout tapped a U.S.-based manufacturer to begin making many of the items he had previously bought from Cadiveu, such as a pretreatment shampoo and at-home products. The only item, Semler said, he continued to buy from Cadiveu was the thermal professional solution. “Then they started to get concerned that [the treatment] was under the Brazilian Blowout brand, not the Cadiveu brand.” Semler explained that he even went so far as to take the Cadiveu name off of bottles so that the industry would only know the brand, Brazilian Blowout, not the manufacturer. In July 2009, Brady said things reached a boiling point when Cadiveu wanted to end its relationship with Brazilian Blowout. As a gesture, Brady said he dissolved his exclusive distribution arrangement in California. Over the next year, the relationship between the two has been strained.

Schmucker confirmed that while there was once a “very good relationship” between the two companies, all of that has changed.

Currently, the California Bureau of Labor is investigating the Brazilian Blowout formula, said bureau spokeswoman Krisann Chasanik. The bureau’s main concern is protecting stylists who perform the service, said Chasanik, noting the Bureau of Labor has up to six months to perform its investigation “and will be very, very thorough.”

The Department of Public Health in California is also investigating the matter, confirmed Ralph Montano, a CDPH spokesman, to make sure no violation of the California Safe Cosmetics Act has been made, which requires manufacturers to report any ingredient that contains a chemical carcinogen.

Dr. Ali Syed, a master chemist who specializes in hair care, takes issue with any hair smoothing treatment that uses aldehydes. “Formaldehyde is from a family of compounds called aldehydes. They are cousins of formaldehyde and they are not allowed by the FDA to be used in high concentrations.…You need anywhere between 1 percent and 4.5 percent formaldehyde to straighten hair. When you apply a liquid version and then flat-iron the hair, the heat releases fumes and it is not a good situation to be in,” he said. “Any credible company will shy away from using formaldehyde as a straightening technique, because sooner or later the FDA will shut them down.”