Brazil struggles with illegal hair straightening products

Forbidden levels of formaldehyde are being used in progressive blow dry treatments

Brazil boasts a tropical climate and an ethnically diverse population, so systems which transform curls and frizz into sleek, humidity-resistant hairstyles are all the rage.

However, preventing illegal levels of formaldehyde from entering straightening products is proving an ongoing struggle for Brazil’s police force and National Health Surveillance Agency (Agência Nacional de Vigilância Sanitária, or ANVISA), according to lawyer and regulatory affairs expert Claudia de Lucca Mano.

The trend for flat-ironed hair has seen Brazilian women opt for the Japanese or ‘definitive’ blow dry – so called because the poker-straight look achieved through the inclusion of legal hair-straightening agent thioglycolic acid or its salts is permanent.

However, it is the more recently introduced, semi-permanent alternative that has become synonymous with Brazilian hair care.

Formaldehyde regulation

The caveat? Formaldehyde, once widely used in cosmetics as a preservative, is a presumed human carcinogen and its use as a cosmetic ingredient is effectively banned in the European Union. In Brazil, ANVISA allows the inclusion of formaldehyde and paraformaldehyde at a level of 0.1% in oral hygiene products and 0.2% in products not intended for oral hygiene as a preservative, and at 5% as a hardening agent in nail products.

It is, however, prohibited in sprayable cosmetic systems and has been banned as an ingredient in household products since 2009. For a hair care product to straighten effectively, however, the percentage of formaldehyde required would far exceed the permitted 0.2%. De Lucca Mano estimates that the level of formaldehyde used in a typical ‘progressive’ blow-dry product is between 10% and 15%.

Underground markets

Unfortunately, as de Lucca Mano observes, “whenever we are buying something as consumers, there will be a market” and demand for sleek, swishy hair means that Brazilian authorities are still battling the illicit manufacture of ‘progressive’ straightening products containing dangerous levels of formaldehyde.

At its most basic, this has involved cases of girls hosting ‘progressive’ blow dry house parties using cola bottles of home-mixed product and ending up in the emergency room with burned scalps, says de Lucca Mano. To combat such activity, she adds, the retail sale of formaldehyde has been forbidden since 2007 in Brazil. But this has done little to dampen consumer interest and, in turn, little to deter the criminals.

“How do these [products] get into the market?” she asks. “What has started happening is, because [in Brazil] risk 1 products are subject only to simple notification procedures within ANVISA, black market manufacturers are setting up cosmetics factories and they notify the formulations, incorrectly, as a simple shampoo or conditioner [a hair straightener formulation would be in the risk 2 category and would need to be registered with proof of efficacy and safety].

"Then they market the product as a ‘progressive blow dry, formaldehyde-free’. But if you open the bottle you can smell the formaldehyde – this is one of their tricks.”

While it is the responsibility of both ANVISA and the country’s police force to deal with manufacturers of fraudulent formulas, the sheer number of illegal operations means that ANVISA cannot cope, “so even if they close one factory, the next minute these guys will jump to another one”, de Lucca Mano says. Police corruption adds to the problem, she notes.

Salon owners slow process

Another issue is that hair salon owners – who could help drive change – are in no rush to do so because they are making good money providing illicit treatments.

Some will even add formaldehyde, which can be purchased wholesale for as little as Brazilian real BRL3.70 per kilo to simple shampoos themselves.

“What ANVISA and health departments throughout the country are trying to do is make people – the women and the salon owners – conscious of the dangers of formaldehyde through education,” says de Lucca Mano. “But that’s not enough, because [consumers] want to look pretty!

“It’s worst for the people who work as stylists and professionals inside beauty salons, because they smell this every day,” she adds.

Alternatives carry risks

Another grey area is around glyoxylic acid, used to adjust the pH of cosmetic formulations. When exposed to heat, glyoxylic acid releases formaldehyde, which means some Brazilian manufacturers are using it as an alternative, says de Lucca Mano.

Meanwhile, law-abiding cosmetics companies are using alternative principals such as carbocysteine. However these are far more expensive than formaldehydecontaining formulations, with some carbocysteine-based products costing as much as €100 per bottle.

De Lucca Mano believes that the most effective strategy would be to pursue the wholesalers feeding this trade in illegal straightening products. But she concedes that: “When the government wants to do something, it does it… this is clearly not a priority.”

Instead, “ANVISA’s strategy is to release more information to women and to deal with each black market manufacturer on a case-by-case basis”.

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