"It came to my attention that people were getting very sick, that there was hair fall, there were respiratory issues, there were all kinds of problems with Brazilian Blowout," Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., says. "This product I think is in some ways the poster child for the problem that we have with cosmetics and various treatments."
Schakowsky, along with Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and eight other lawmakers, wrote to the FDA in May asking for better regulation and labeling of keratin-based hair-smoothing products that contain formaldehyde, which is classified as a possible carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Formaldehyde can irritate the eyes, skin and lungs and cause breathing problems.
"The consequences are so serious, and people are paying a lot of money for various treatments that they get, and we don't want them to put themselves in danger," Schakowsky said.
The FDA is still evaluating the data on such hair straighteners, spokeswoman Stephanie Yao said.
"It's important to note that hair straighteners are considered cosmetics and are not subject to pre-market approval," Yao said in an email. "The use of formaldehyde in hair straighteners is not prohibited, and there are no limits on the level in our regulations."
The hair straighteners also have caught the attention of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It's investigating complaints from hair stylists and salon owners and has issued a hazard alert and advised consumers not to use products that list formaldehyde, formalin, methylene glycol or any other names for formaldehyde. State health authorities in Oregon, California and Connecticut issued safety advisories, recommending air monitoring to prevent exposure, proper ventilation, and gloves and other protective equipment during the application process.
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review, an independent group, plans to complete a study on products that use formaldehyde in September, but released a revised tentative conclusion in June that said "formaldehyde and methylene glycol are unsafe for use in hair smoothing products."
"Anytime you have water and methylene glycol, you are going to have formaldehyde. It's automatic. You can't stop it," said F. Alan Andersen, director of the review. "So, saying `formaldehyde free' for a product that has methylene glycol, is at best, misleading and under FDA law, could make the product misbranded."
Andersen said while the group does not have regulatory power, its findings are advisory in nature. The group recommends formaldehyde or methylene glycol levels of no more than 0.074 percent in products.
Oregon OSHA has tested a sample of Brazilian Blowout Acai Professional Smoothing Solution labeled "formaldehyde free" with more than 8 percent formaldehyde.
Brazilian Blowout said in a statement it was "pleased, confident and relieved" that the FDA was looking into keratin treatments, "as we are certain their investigation will be based on scientific data and fact." Keratin is a protein found in hair and nails.
The statement said Brazilian Blowout, marketed by GIB LLC, never exceeded several of OSHA's levels and limits on formaldehyde and passed multiple air quality tests by numerous reputable independent agencies.
Ann Amott, stylist and co-owner of Salon A in Bethesda, Md., has used Brazilian Blowout for a year and a half after learning about the product from her daughter who works in a California salon. She said the treatment has become more popular in the summertime; she's gone from applying one to about four treatments a week.
"That's what people have been liking about it -- they can still have their volume, but they get rid of the frizz," she said.
Yelena Levanda, a skin therapist at Salon A and Organic SPA Room, both in Bethesda, received her second Brazilian Blowout treatment in June. There is an odor sometimes and her hair appears dry over time after the treatment, but she said she has no evidence that she should not trust the product.
"It looks really good, shiny," she said of her hair. "I cannot say it's healthy. I just can't, but I like it. I like the results."
Alexandra Spunt, a Los Angeles writer and co-author of the book "No More Dirty Looks," said when she got a Brazilian Blowout three years ago, her eyes were burning and watery during the application process.
"They gave us protective goggles because our eyes were burning, which is not exactly what you expect when you go to a fancy West Hollywood salon," she said.
Spunt said that initially she had "perfectly straight hair" and after a few washes, it became wavy manageable hair. But the weird, toxic smell persisted, and two months later, she said, her hair appeared dry, with some areas thin and others thick.