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Whistle-blowing in style: How an Oregonian hairdresser prompted an investigation into the ‘Brazilian Blowout’

“I don’t like to stir the pot and cause trouble,” 31-year-old Molly Scrutton, a hairstylist in Portland, Ore., told a reporter for the Oregonian newspaper earlier this week. “But if I believe something is wrong, I’ll stand up and say so.”

And Scrutton believes something is very wrong with the Brazilian Blowout, an expensive ($250-$350) hair-straightening procedure that’s become hugely popular in hair salons across the country.

Scrutton herself had eagerly embraced the Brazilian Blowout when it came on the market last year, performing 20 or so of the procedures for clients. But then she got a nosebleed — her first ever — and developed persistent flu-like symptoms, including a sore throat and chest pain.   

She began to wonder if her symptoms were linked to an ingredient in the Brazilian Blowout’s hair-smoothing chemicals. She called the manufacturer, Brazilian Blowout of California, but they declined to tell her what was in the solution. That just raised her suspicions. So she embarked on some sleuthing and discovered that other stylists had suffered symptoms similar to hers — when they’d been exposed to hair products containing dangerous levels of formaldehyde (a chemical also associated with cancer).

Scrutton called all her clients to inform them that she would no longer be offering the treatment. And, eventually, she convinced her co-workers to quit using the product as well.

But she didn’t stop there. As it happens, one of her clients is a formaldhyde researcher at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU). Soon an occupational safety and health specialist from OHSU’s Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology was collecting and testing samples of Brazilian Blowout.

Their findings: The samples contained between 4.85 percent and 10.6 percent formaldehyde. A separate testing by a Canadian health agency found the product contained 12 percent formaldehyde.

As the Oregonian notes, “OSHA [the federal agency responsible for workplace safety and health] requires manufacturers whose products are used in workplaces and that contain more than 0.1 percent formaldehyde to list the chemical and to address safe work practices on the material safety data sheet with the product.”

Brazilian Blowout of California had at first maintained on its website that the product was formaldehyde-free, reports the Oregonian. Then it said the product contained only trace amounts of the chemical. Last week it announced that an independent company, Health Science Associates, had found that any formaldehyde gas released by the Brazilian Blowout procedure was well within OSHA’s permissible limits. It stands by its claim that the product is “100% safe.”

The Oregon agency is warning hairstylists to use the product with caution. National Public Radio (NPR) reports that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has also received complaints about Brazilian Blowout and is “monitoring the issue.”

Meanwhile, our neighbors to the north have taken a bolder stance. Canada’s health agency, says NPR, “has pulled Brazilian Blowout from the shelves and is warning stylists and consumers not to use it.”

As for the intrepid Scrutton, she’s back cutting hair, but much wiser and warier.

“These companies,” she told the Oregonian, “need to be held accountable.”

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