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F is for Formaldehyde: Brazilian Blowout, Keratin Smoothing Treatments, and Keratin Complex Express

brazilian blowout formaldehyde
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Janine Falcon_Julia McEwen

Health Canada released an advisory against the Brazilian Blowout Solution smoothing treatment yesterday, stating that the formula contains unacceptable levels of formaldehyde. Yet, according to Brazilian Blowout's website, the product is formaldehyde-free.

Thing is, formaldehyde is simply the F-word aldehyde. There are other aldehydes in smoothing-formula play that may release toxic fumes in reaction to the considerable styling-tool heat the process requires, and the brand seems not to have released its ingredients list. We can't tell what its aldehyde content is. Plus, it seems Health Canada actually tested the product before making their recommendation.

Brazilian vs Keratin

I'm about to do something journalistically horrific: use one brand's claims to debunk another's. Sort of. Kids, don't try this at home. Rest assured I'm still researching; this is just what I have access to at the moment.

Health Canada's advisory is limited to Brazilian Blowout Solution specifically. If you're spooked because you were considering a keratin treatment, well, according at least to the folks at Keratin Complex: Brazilian Blow Out [sic] is not actually considered a keratin service because it contains 0% keratin in its formula. Other Brazilian treatments have stated that they have at most 2% of keratin. Keratin Complex utilizes an entirely different formulation which contains over 40% pure keratin.

But you know what? Keratin isn't the issue. Formaldehyde is.

Despite Brazilian Blowout's formaldehyde-free claim, Keratin Complex says: "Brazilian Blow Out [sic] includes formaldehyde as an ingredient in their formulation which when applied to the outside of the hair and is heated causes the hair to straighten, also releasing a formaldehyde gas into the air."

Its own formula contains no formaldehyde, natch; instead Keratin Complex uses "an aldehyde as a preservative, which when heated bonds to the keratin molecule and is sealed inside the hair shaft, thus not emitting any harmful gas into the air."

I've never wished more that I'd studied chemistry in school. I think The Beauty Brains studied it, though. According to their research, 0.2 per cent is the formaldehyde-content limit, at least according to the UK Cosmetic Products Safety Regulations.

Keratin Complex Express

A few weeks ago, Canadian Living senior style editor Julia McEwen and I tried the Keratin Complex Express Blow Out at Salon Escape in Yorkville, Toronto. (That's us in the above photo, post treatment.) It's different from a standard keratin smoothing treatment in several ways:

1) Including styling, the process takes about 90 minutes vs three or four hours
2) Results last up to six weeks rather than six months
3) Cost hits between $90 and $125 rather than $350 to $700

I haven't tried the regular treatment, so I can't compare. I can tell you that this Express version has no chemical odour whatsoever. But odour isn't a measure of noxious fumes: when Nikki was working around my temples and hairline near my eyes, my eyes watered and stung. Whether the aldehyde Keratin Complex uses is "sealed inside the hair shaft" doesn't seem to matter. And although their PR folks say it's "under 1% of an aldehyde which does not ever turn into a formaldehyde gas," I'm sensitive to it.

Post treatment my hair is glossy, mangageable and significantly less frizzy. It's flatter on top, too -- I wish the sodium-chloride and sulfate-free shampoo I'm using to prolong the results were a volumizing formula -- but I can't lie: I like the results. It takes much, much less effort than before to get a swingy smooth finish that makes me feel and look more polished.

Is it Worth It?

Despite the stinging-eyes issue, I'm tempted to try Keratin Complex Express again sometime. Or maybe not: I had no such disconcerting issues with a in-salon hair relaxing treatment called X-Tenso, by L'Oréal Professionnel, which gave me similar results a long while back. I wrote about X-Tenso for Canadian Living years ago; according to L'Oréal Professionnel's Colin Ford, it's been updated and improved since then. And I have more research to do, with independent chemistry-smart people unaffiliated with these treatments.

Obviously, whether or not the risks -- or perceived risks -- are worth the experience is a personal decision. Some might think I'm nuts for not taking a clear stand already. But we all pick our battles: daily sunscreen, parabens, smoking, driving, sugar... of course, none of those examples is marked with the vanity stamp. That's a whole other battle.

* * * * * * *

UPDATE: Keratin treatments and unacceptable formaldehyde limits are back in the news again. Health Canada has issued another advisory naming specific brands that, despite manufacturer claims, contain more than the permitted .2 per cent formaldehyde limit in cosmetic formulas. According to the Canadian Press, the following are on the hotlist:

  • Keratin Complex Express Blowout by Copomon (Coppola) 1.70 per cent
  • Brazilian Keratin Treatment (Mint) - Royal Keratin Professional Line by Keratin Connection (also available in Chocolate and Strawberry) 1.54 per cent
  • Veloce by La Brasiliana 0.35 per cent
  • Zero (Apple) by La Brasiliana (also available in Clear and Mocha) 0.76 per cent
  • Moroccan Hair Treatment by Inoar 2.84 per cent

And the following products contain unacceptable levels of formaldehyde based on data submitted to Health Canada:

  • Original by La Brasiliana (also available in Original Chocolate)
  • Domani by La Brasiliana
  • Spruzzi by La Brasiliana
  • Brazilian Keratin Treatment by Pro Skin Solutions
  • Marcia Teixeira Chocolate Extreme De-Frizzing Treatment EU by M&M International
  • Marcia Teixeira Brazilian Keratin Treatment EU by M&M International

A previous advisory named the following:

  • Brazilian Blowout Smoothing Solution by Brazilian Blowout 8.4 per cent
  • Brazilian Keratin Treatment by Marcia Teixeira 1.8 per cent
  • Advanced Brazilian Keratin Treatment by Marcia Teixeira 1.7 per cent
  • Chocolate Extreme De-Frizzing Treatment by Marcia Teixeira 1.6 per cent
  • Keratin Complex Smoothing Therapy Treatment by Copomon (Coppola) 1.8 per cent
  • Global Keratin Taming System Strawberry by Global Keratin 3.0 per cent
  • Global Keratin Taming System with Juvexin Strawberry Resistant by Global Keratin 4.4 per cent
  • Global Keratin Taming System with Juvexin Strawberry Light Wave by Global Keratin 1.4 per cent
  • Pro-Collagen RX Keratin Treatment 2.8 per cent
  • IStraight Keratin (Advanced Keratin Treatment) by IBS Beauty 2.3 per cent
  • Brazilian Thermal Reconstruction by Cadiveu 7.0 per cent

I haven't had the treatment done since the first time. Safe to say I likely won't. Again, I've never wished more that I were a chemist -- the problem with this issue is, I think, that no-one really understands the chemistry involved, not the manufacturers or the educators. And when something is this complex -- it's not just about what's in the formula but what appears when the formula is used, perhaps blanket avoidance is best.

In the celebrity arena, actor Mary Louise Parker ("Weeds") reports that a Brazilian Blowout made her hair fall out...

What do you think? Would you brave the risk? Or avoid altogether?

ANOTHER UPDATE: if you're looking for a definitely formaldehyde-free alternative to keratin treatments or the Brazilian Blowout, check out this salon service called X-tenso Moisturist.