OSHA Issues Hazard Warning for Hair Styling Products Containing Formaldehyde

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) along with the Connecticut state OSHA program recently released warnings based on possible formaldehyde exposure after using hair smoothing products. Specifically, several concerns have been raised about the toxicity of products that are labeled "formaldehyde free" but still emit harmful fumes. The warnings apply to hair salon owners, stylists, workers, as well as salon clients.

Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling gas that is commonly used in bonding plywood and embalming bodies for funerals. It is a highly toxic substance that can be hazardous if exposed to it. According to OSHA hazard alerts, workers can be exposed to formaldehyde by breathing it in or through contact with the skin and eyes. Workers can also be exposed accidentally by eating food or touching their faces after using a formaldehyde product without washing their hands first.

Formaldehyde is commonly known as a "sensitizer," which means that it can cause allergic reactions of the skin, eyes, and lungs. It can irritate the eyes and nose, cause coughing and wheezing, as well as skin rashes and itching. In extreme cases, it can severely damage the eyes and possibly cause blindness. Formaldehyde is also a suspected carcinogen.

Despite its dangerous qualities, many salon owners and workers are unaware of their exposure risk, especially when products are labeled "formaldehyde free." The primary culprit is a straightener called Brazilian Blowout Acai Professional Smoothing Solution. OSHA conducted air tests in a salon using this product, and found formaldehyde at levels greater than established safety regulations, even though the product was labeled "formaldehyde-free." In other investigations, OSHA found that hair salon owners would not know that a hair smoothing products could expose workers to formaldehyde because manufacturers, importers and distributors did not include the correct warnings on product information.

Other states have issued warnings based on possible formaldehyde exposure. A hair stylist who complained of nosebleeds, eye irritation and trouble breathing while using Brazilian Blowout prompted an investigation by Oregon OSHA. It tested a number of keratin-based hair smoothing products and found formaldehyde levels well above what could legally be labeled as "formaldehyde-free." It also found that many products did not list formaldehyde as a hazardous material on its label, product composition or in the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).

The MSDS is required to provide information about the chemicals that comprise a particular product, the potential safety hazards for users, and the precautions to be taken before using the product. OSHA requires formaldehyde to be listed in the MSDS if it is included in the product at 0.1% or more (as a gas or in solution) or if the product releases formaldehyde above 0.1 parts formaldehyde per million parts of air (ppm).

The mislabeling may be attributable to a product's initial composition. In its latest safety briefing, OSHA reported that many keratin-based hair smoothing products contain formaldehyde that is actually dissolved (and chemically reacted) in water and other ingredients. Because of this, some manufacturers may list other chemical names, such as methylene glycol, formalin, methylene oxide, paraform or CAS Number 50-00-0. However, these are all considered formaldehyde under OSHA's standards. Nevertheless, formaldehyde is a health hazard, whether in a product or in the air, and OSHA does not recommend that these products be used.

OSHA advises salon owners and stylists to diligently read product labels so that they understand what is in the products they use, and to avoid potential hazards. Those who use products containing formaldehyde must adhere to the air testing requirements set forth in OSHA's safety standards. Essentially, owners must discover the level of formaldehyde in the air before using hair smoothing products. If the level exceeds OSHA safety standards (0.75 parts of formaldehyde ppm of air during an 8-hour work shift or 2 ppm during any 15-minute period) owners must incorporate ventilation systems, use lower heat settings on flat irons and blow dryers, and post adequate warnings regarding exposure.

Regardless of air levels, salon owners must provide proper safety equipment for dealing with potentially dangerous hair products, including chemical splash goggles, chemical-resistant aprons and gloves.

If you have concerns about the legal implications of prolonged formaldehyde exposure, an experienced attorney can advise you of your rights and options.