Dying for straight hair?

2014-04-23 00:00

GOING to a hair salon to have your hair chemically straightened could make you more susceptible to cancer, a new South African study reveals.

The study, which was printed in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatologists and completed by the University of Cape Town, found that the popular Brazilian Keratin type hair straightener could be bad for your health because of high dosages of formaldehyde.

Brazilian Keratin Treatment (BKT) and similar straightening products fix and retain a straight shape even when the hair is wet.

It is particularly popular in KwaZulu-Natal as the high moisture level in the air is known to fluff out hair, often making it difficult to manage.

The study, led by Associate Professor Nonhlanhla Khumalo in the Division of Dermatology, took seven commercial brands commonly used in South Africa and tested them for their formaldehyde properties.

“The maximum safe concentration of formaldehyde set by the U.S. Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel and by most countries, including South Africa, is less than 0,2%,” a UCT statement yesterday said.

“Of the seven commercial brands studied, six had formaldehyde levels that ranged from 0,96% to 1,4%. That is five times higher than the legal limit and these included five brands that were labelled formaldehyde-free,” it said.

Writing in the South African Medical Journal, Khumalo said formaldehyde was associated with eye and skin reactions and adverse pregnancy outcomes.

“It is classified as a carcinogen [or cancer-causing agent]. Chronic exposure to high concentration is associated with respiratory and blood cancers such as leukaemia and lymphomas.”

A document released by the Cancer Association of South Africa (Cansa) in March listed formaldehyde as a carcinogen.

It warned the public that formaldehyde is banned from use in cosmetics and toiletries in Japan and Sweden while in the EU “it is restricted in personal care products”.

But the industry is split with some advocating the proper use of the treatment under strict controls while a major centre for training hairstylists has said it may completely stop training its students from using the Brazilian Keratin type products.

Cansa’s Professor Michael Herbst said while South Africa was moving towards stricter controls of food labelling, the need to regulate the cosmetic industry was paramount.

“We would like to see greater control. For instance, in Canada, its usage is restricted. We have also become susceptible to products banned in other countries being dumped in Africa. There is not pressure from importers to make sure their products are safe leaving it up to the consumers,” said Herbst.

The Cansa report, which also listed metals such as aluminium, lead and arsenic as ingredients used in cosmetic products, said the cosmetics industry uses thousands of synthetic chemicals in its products.

“Many of these substances are also used in industrial manufacturing processes to clean industrial equipment, stabilise pesticides and grease gears. One must agree that an ingredient that effectively scours a garage floor may not be the best choice for a facial cleanser,” said the report.

But a leading hair salon franchise owner, Terry Scott, said while formaldehyde was an ingredient, they only bought their products from the U.S. He said like any industry there were bound to be salons that did not take the same safety precautions.

“The U.S. has very strict controls over chemicals. All of our products used in the Brazilian treatment are SABS approved. In KwaZulu-Natal, there is a large uptake for this product because of the moisture in the air that makes hair curl. This is not simply a hair straightening process but a hair treatment. It replaces the keratin into a person’s hair keeping it healthy and restores and repairs the hair,” said Scott.

Some Brazilian treatment brands are known to emit a type of steam once on the hair. Scott said his clients and stylists are required to wear surgical-type masks during the treatment.

Meanwhile, Elsabe Sheppard, who runs the Hair Academy of South Africa, said she was concerned about the health of hair stylists and may well phase out the training of applying Brazilian Keratin treatment from the coursework.

“While a client only has the treatment every four to six months, the hairdressers face the fumes it emits on a daily basis. I suspect once people realise the dangers, the appetite for this treatment will decrease but right now it is popular, especially among the younger women,” said Sheppard.

The Cosmetic Toiletries and Fragrance Association was contacted but was unavailable for comment.

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