With her head of unruly, thick red hair, Susanne Harvey was easily enticed by the promise of a sleek, smooth new look. The innovative beauty treatment, which Harvey had seen touted at local salons and in women's magazines, guaranteed a "natural way to fight frizzies." So when she settled into the chair at her favorite beauty spot for the 90-minute makeover, she was excited. Little did the 39-year-old real estate professional from Calgary know that her makeover dream the Brazilian Blowout would soon become a nightmare.
Within three weeks Harvey was losing hair, lots of hair. It fell in her shoes. It covered her clothes. It pissed her off. Then it pushed her into action. What happened next demonstrates some of the crucial differences between the regulation of cosmetic and beauty products in Canada and other industrialized countries and the lack of oversight in the United States.
Harvey started researching Brazilian Blowout and quickly discovered many women on Oprah.com blogs sharing similar hair-loss stories following treatment. Within 15 days of her hair thinning, she filed a consumer product incident report with the product safety office of Health Canada, the country's federal health department. While she waited the required ten days for product testing results, she launched a local media blitz to warn others about the product. Harvey also contacted the North Hollywood, Calif., manufacturer of Brazilian Blowout to request an ingredient list. The company refused, citing a pending patent.
Then came the testing results from Health Canada: Brazilian Blowout contained 12 percent formaldehyde.
"They embalm dead people at the same level," Harvey says. "My head had been embalmed. I wondered if paying $400 for a 90-minute procedure was worth my health. And what about the dangers to stylists, inhaling the steamy off-gases from the formaldehyde formula?"
On October 7, 2010, one week after reporting its product findings, Health Canada issued a recall of Brazilian Blowout and prohibited future distribution to salons in Canada.
"Brazilian Blowout is now illegal in Canada," Harvey says. "You have to go across the border to have it done."
Meanwhile, in the United States, the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division (OSHA) launched its own investigation into Brazilian Blowout in response to a stylist's complaint of chest pain, sore throat, and nosebleed. Last October OSHA released a warning to Oregon's 21,000 licensed hairstylists stating that although the product is labeled "formaldehyde-free," the actual level of formaldehyde averaged from between 7 and 12 percent in the samples tested. In early November the state of California entered the fray when the attorney general filed a lawsuit against the product's Southern California manufacturer, citing a lack of warning to salon stylists and consumers that BB contains levels of formaldehyde possibly harmful to health.
Why all the concern over formaldehyde? Well, besides the immediate side effects of respiratory problems, skin irritation, and hair loss, the World Health Organization classifies formaldehyde as a carcinogen linked to cancer of the lungs, nasal passages, and blood.
Despite all the news coverage, the Oregon lab's test results, and the recall in Canada, here in the United States, as of early February, the Food and Drug Administration has not restricted or banned sales of the product.
Because, under current law, it can't.
Most consumers who buy shampoos, deodorants, baby lotions, toothpaste, hair products, makeup, and sunscreens in the US probably assume that if the product is for sale, it must be safe. That's not necessarily the case. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cannot regulate personal care products and cosmetics until after the products reach store shelves. And even then, the agency lacks the teeth to do much protecting.
The 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act required new products be proven safe before marketing. But the rules never applied to cosmetics. Manufacturers of cosmetics are not required to disclose all of the ingredients in their formulations, thanks to a "confidential business information" provision in the 1938 law. And almost any ingredient can be included in a product without undergoing a safety assessment prior to marketing. Consumers may report adverse effects to the FDA following use of a product such as allergic reactions and the FDA may test some ingredients, recommending their use be discontinued; but the system is based upon voluntary compliance by manufacturers. Unlike Health Canada, the FDA has no authority to issue a mandatory recall of any personal care or cosmetic product.
When it comes to what we put on our body the products we slather in our hair or cover our face with there's an oversight vacuum. Today there are at least 500 cosmetic products on store shelves in the United States containing ingredients banned in Canada, Japan, and Europe.
"What we put on our skin should be as safe as what we eat," says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. "If you can't prove it is safe, take it off the market."
Last July, before the blow-up over the Blowout, some members of Congress introduced the Safe Cosmetics Act to address the shortcoming in vital consumer protection. The Republican takeover of Congress may have set back the bill's chances the $300 billion cosmetics market, after all, is big business. But the act's backers feel that the issue has enough popular appeal to gain bipartisan support.
Of course, nothing is a given in Washington's polarized climate. Backers of the act face a maze of competing interests from big manufacturers that want to stop it, to small producers who fear government intrusion into their cottage industry, to organic advocates who feel the proposed legislation is insufficient.
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