Article by: Perry Romanowski

If you are not in the business of formulating hair care products you may have missed the big kerfuffle caused by the use of formaldehyde in a salon treatment called the Brazilian hair-straightening. A couple of years ago, the Brazilian treatment became quite popular until people figured out that there were high levels of formaldehyde being used to get the straightening effect. The manufacturers rightly claimed they were using methylene glycol but ultimately the regulators didn’t buy the explanation. Just recently, the SCCS (regulatory organization in the EU) declared that methylene glycol in hair straightening products represented a health risk.

So, here we have a cosmetic technology that works, but is not allowed. This occassionally happens to cosmetic formulators so it is helpful to have a plan on what to do with a technology you can’t use. Here are some suggestions.

Get the same benefit with less

I actually ran into this exact problem when I was working on a hair color retention technology. I accidentally discovered a formaldehyde-donor preservative had a color locking effect.It was actually the basis of my first patent. Anyway, as we developed the technology we were conscious of the maximum amount of formaldehyde/methylene glycol we could use and we made it a point to use the maximum amount without having to label “contains formaldehyde”. We were still able to get some benefit but not the maximum amount. But a partial benefit is sometimes good enough.

Find an analogue

If you figure out the mechanism by which your technology is working, you can partner with a raw material supplier to get a similar molecule made that doesn’t have the problems associated with the unuseable technology. In the case of formaldehyde, you could search for molecules that have a formaldehyde functional group. Or you can test other molecules that have methyl groups substituted for the Hydrogen atom. This is a chance for you to use your chemistry knowledge. Incidentally, this is what many of the Brazilian hair straightening brands have done.

Find a way to reduce negative effects

Reducing the level is one way to minimize negative effects but there are other options. Suppose you want to use a technology that is irritating but still provides a good benefit. You can find a delivery technology like microspheres or matrix polymers to reduce irritation potential. In the case of methylene glycol this would not have worked because the regulators don’t acknowledge nuianced use of technologies.

Use it as a model

Perhaps the best option for using a technology that is not suitable for sale is to use it as a model for what you want your product to achieve. In the cosmetic industry it is difficult to find suitable models and benchmarks for positive effects. When we found the color locking technology, it gave us a great visual target to compare all subsequent technologies to. As a formulator, finding targets to beat is critical.

Defend the technology

Finally, you can try to defend the technology by demonstrating it is safe to use. Just be aware that although you might convince regulatory agencies that a technology is safe, you’ll have a much harder time convincing certain consumers and all the chemical fearmongering groups. It may be a reality that you can never use the technology in a saleable cosmetic product.



  1. Avatar
    keratin treatment

    Everything is very open with a really clear clarification of
    the challenges. It was really informative. Your site is
    very helpful. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Avatar

    Wow… didn’t even know about that Brazilian Blow Out thing… but of course after reading the article I went and tried to do some research. It was very difficult to form a clear picture for myself from the available information, and I knew what questions to ask and what to look for with my chemical background. The average woman getting her hair done doesn’t, and then she is getting erroneous and/or incomplete information from people who don’t even know anything about science! No wonder everybody is so confused!

    Here is my opinion (and a few facts) after researching the subject:

    The hydration of formaldehyde is an equilibrium reaction like the news says… but they didn’t say that the product is favoured so heavily as to bring the concentration of formaldehyde down to 0.01% of the solution. As many chemistry folks pointed out, formaldehyde is a GAS and won’t want to stay in solution if the temperature is not cold enough to keep it there. The temperatures generated during the hair service would be sufficient to force unreacted formaldehyde from the system. Since the reaction product exists in equilibrium, and since there is sufficient warmth to encourage the reverse reaction people are going to be exposed to formaldehyde vapours. Period. But the exposure for the client shouldn’t be too bad since they say it lasts about 4 months, plus it would be low since only 0.01% of the mixture is available as formaldehyde at any given time. Also, the amount of formaldehyde vapour would decrease as the service progresses, since you are always losing about 0.01% of what is left of your reaction product. If this product scares anybody it should be the stylists… they would be exposed constantly and even if it is under the OSHA limit would likely eventually create problems as repeated, long-term exposure to something like that, even below occupational health and safety limits has cumulative effects. I have seen hairstylists and lab techs alike develop sensitivities after repeated exposure to one chemical or another- even with proper precautions being taken to minimize exposure and stay within OSHA limits.

    Aniline isn’t good for you either but I’m not going to stop colouring my hair. (When I was in hair school, they taught us that most permanent hair colourings are derived from aniline.) I have decided that since I only do it 3 or 4 times a year that the risk is acceptable.
    But that’s just it. Unlike most people, I am actually making an informed decision.

    Everybody dropped the ball a hundred times on Brazilian Blow Out. While it’s true that people are exposed to formaldehyde vapours during use, the amount of exposure may have been exaggerated- it certainly was in the case of the client. But formaldehyde still is not a good thing to be exposed to and in the case of the stylists using that product on their clients, cumulative, long-term exposure could definitely result in health problems.

    The fact that the lawmakers could not wrap their heads around the idea of a chemical reaction that changes formaldehyde into something else arises, I believe, from some pretty confusing multiple names for the same chemical. Maybe that sort of thing would stop happening if INCI and everyone else got on the IUPAC bandwagon.

    I think that those of us who develop beauty products for others owe it to our clientele and ourselves to use the best quality, least toxic ingredients and preservatives possible and also to educate said clientele regarding all the risks and benefits of using anything. My personal belief is that by educating customers and telling them the truth, you gain their trust and respect. You can also nip any misinformation right in the bud. I found a lot of scare mongering and misinformation out there. But companies are just as guilty- they deflect or sugar coat instead of being totally honest with people. If you don’t really want people to know everything about your product, then I think that maybe you should not be selling said product.

  3. Avatar

    Excellent article, I’ve been looking at some straighteners on the market and they use three steps.
    1 – Shampoo Deep Cleaning:
    formula (sodium lauryl ether sulfate, Cocamide dea, cocoamidipropilbetaia, lauryl polyglucose, parfum, citric acid, peg 120 methyl glucose, dissodium edta, peg 150 distearate, isotiazolinas.)
    2 – Intense Smooth Lotion
    formula (glyoxylouyl carbocysteine??, glyoxylouyl keratin amino acis, catearyl alcohol, Cetrimonium chloride, dimethicone, ceteareth 20, parfum, liquid Paraffinum, cyclomethicone, theobroma grandiflorum seed butter, phenyl trimethicone, isotiazolinas)
    3 – Hair Reconstructor
    formula (cetearyl alcohol, Cetrimonium chloride, liquid paraffin, parfum, ceteareth 20, dimethiconol, cyclomethicone, laureth 23, laureth 4, peg 14 m, hidroxipropiltrimonium honey, panthenol, citric acid, hydrolyzed keratin, pentaerythrityl tetra-di-t-butyl. hidroxihidrocinamate, isotiazolinas).

    Just do not know if it works, so that would be realized carbocysteine ??ingredient, but I think we had have hidden formaldehyde al.

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Hello Renato – Thanks for the kind words. I am skeptical that any of those treatments would actually help straighten the hair. The Intense Smooth Lotion might if the carbocysteine reacts with hair protein. I believe the Tresemme color-lock product is still out. That will help keep hair straightened if you use it as a leave-in prior to straightening with a flat iron.

    2. Avatar

      This is a medication product. What do it do for your hair?

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