CaliforniaFor over a century, formaldehyde, a colorless, odorless gas, has been used in industry and manufacturing. In past decades, it was the subject of litigation involving products ranging from recreational vehicles to nail polish. In those claims, the plaintiffs typically argued that respiratory or dermal exposure to formaldehyde caused injuries as serious as cancer.  Indeed, in 2011, the federal government classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen, and it is identified as such by California’s Proposition 65. 

brazilianblowoutFormaldehyde is found in many commonly used consumer products, including cosmetics and popular Brazilian Blowout hair straightening treatments.  This treatment uses a chemical mixture and heat to straighten hair. But although professionals in many other industries are monitored for formaldehyde exposure, hairstylists applying the treatment are not.  In 2010, after numerous reports of headaches, nosebleeds, eye irritation, and asthma attacks by hairstylists, the Brazilian Blowout products came under scrutiny. Samples tested by the Food and Drug Administration and Oregon’s OSHA were found to contain methylene glycol, the liquid form of formaldehyde, at levels ranging from 6 to 12 percent.  Notably, OSHA regulations require disclosure of  formaldehyde content exceeding 0.1 percent.  But neither the Brazilian Blowout product labels, containers, or material safety data sheets disclosed the presence of formaldehyde. In fact, advertising materials for the Brazilian Blowout products identified them as formaldehyde free.

Ultimately, the presence of formaldehyde resulted in the ban of Brazilian Blowout products in several countries. But they remain available in the United  States. In response to the 2010 findings, consumers and hairstylists began filing personal injury claims against the manufacturer of the Brazilian Blowout.

Most of the claims have been coordinated in the Los Angeles County Superior Court.  Additionally, in accordance with the Safe Cosmetics Act, the California Attorney General filed an enforcement action seeking the inclusion of product health warnings against the manufacturer of Brazilian Blowout products. In 2012, the manufacturer settled the enforcement action and agreed to include a health warning on product labels. Soon after, the manufacturer settled a Brazilian Blowout consumer and hairstylist class-action. The settlement totaled $4.5 million with class-members receiving payments ranging from $35 to $75.  As part of the settlement, the manufacturer agreed to stop advertising its products as formaldehyde-free, and to include more detailed instructions on product use and safety.

Many consumer and hairstylist claims remain pending. In those claims, plaintiffs allege formaldehyde in Brazilian Blowout products caused a variety of ailments, including headaches, nausea and vomiting, skin rashes, coughs, sore throats, and asthma.  Indeed, medical and scientific literature suggests salon customers may suffer acute health effects, such as rashes, breathing difficulties, bloody noses, headaches, and eye irritation, from formaldehyde exposure during a Brazilian Blowout treatment.  The literature indicates that generally during such a treatment, salon customers are not exposed to formaldehyde at levels in excess of the Proposition 65 warning threshold, and thus, such exposure may not lead to an increased cancer risk, or long term formaldehyde toxicity or poisoning. But the literature also suggests that hairstylists performing Brazilian Blowout treatments may be at an increased risk for developing injuries because of formaldehyde gas exposure at levels in excess of the 40 micrograms per day safe harbor level.  This exposure may be reduced through ventilation, and salons still offering the Brazilian Blowout are increasingly conscious of the importance of proper ventilation, including windows, doors, and fans, in reducing exposure. 

Despite consumer awareness and increased protective measures, an intriguing and original claim was recently added to the Los Angeles Superior Court Brazilian Blowout coordinated actions. In the claim, a plaintiff hairstylist alleges she developed myelodysplastic syndrome and refractory anemia from repeated exposure to Brazilian Blowout products and other hair care products, including consumer market shampoos and conditioners.  This claim marks the first time that consumer market shampoo and conditioner manufacturers were named as defendants in a Brazilian Blowout claim.  Although the viability of the claims against the shampoo and conditioner manufacturers are unknown, a well-known manufacturer of personal and baby care products has since announced it will voluntarily remove formaldehyde-containing chemical preservatives from its baby products in 2013 and adult products in 2015.


Randall J. LeeJennifer N. HuntFeel free to contact the authors with any questions:  

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Jennifer N. Hunt at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Or any WFBM attorney with whom you are working.