When Andria Mendicino, owner of a hair salon in Toronto's Yorkville neighbourhood, heard last year about a new treatment that could smooth hair for weeks on end, she was sold. Except for just one question: Did the product used in the treatment contain formaldehyde, a carcinogen that can be found in trace amounts in some personal-care products? The company assured her that it did not.
So, in July, 2009, Ms. Mendicino's salon, Domenico & Drea, became one of the first in Canada to offer Brazilian Blowout. However, earlier this month, she learned that Health Canada had issued a warning about the solution used in the treatment because it contains 12-per-cent formaldehyde.
"We chose this product because it's formaldehyde-free, because we are trying to move into that era of everything is green and sustainable and healthy," Ms. Mendicino said.
The problem with the Brazilian Blowout treatment came to light after Health Canada received six complaints from Sept. 1 to Oct. 5 about burning eyes, noses and throats and even one case of hair loss associated with the product.
Now, questions surround the safety of similar products because of the lack of regulation. Health Canada says it has received complaints about other Brazilian-style hair treatments as well.
This isn't the first time that hair products have been singled out for their potential health risks. Hair dye has come under fire from health advocates who say they may be linked to bladder cancer or other problems, while chemicals in permanent solutions, shampoos and other products have been tied to everything from allergies to asthma.
In 2004, Health Canada issued a public warning about Sesa Hair Supplement capsules, designed to treat hair loss, because they contain excessive amounts of lead. One patient was admitted to hospital for lead poisoning. In 2005, the government announced plans to ban lead acetate, a key ingredient in hair colorants for men that is also a suspected carcinogen and toxic to the reproductive system.
But the Brazilian Blowout controversy has struck a sensitive nerve at a time when more people are becoming wary of ingredients in the food they eat and products they use. Salon owners are questioning why Health Canada doesn't place more scrutiny on products before they hit the market, instead of creating a "buyer-beware" environment.
"[Brazilian Blowout]wasn't actually scrutinized or looked at closer," said Chloe Scarf, owner of Seventh Heaven Hair Gallery and Bio Salon, in Crescent Beach outside Surrey, B.C. Her salon focuses on using alternatives to chemicals. "I'm disappointed with Health Canada not looking out for our interests. It's putting the onus back on the consumer."
While Canada's Food and Drugs Act prohibits companies from selling cosmetics or personal-care products that are hazardous, companies are often left in charge of policing themselves. "It is the responsibility of industry to ensure that all cosmetics sold to consumers in Canada meet the requirements," Gary Holub, a Health Canada spokesman, said in an e-mail.
The department also does product testing, but cannot test everything on the market. So, unless a company says its product contains a hazardous ingredient or Health Canada receives complaints from the public, the problem may never come to light.
It's a gap that has many in the hair industry questioning whether present safeguards are enough to protect consumers against potentially hazardous goods. "There doesn't seem to be a watchdog really for these types of things," said Jennifer Vanderleij, co-owner of Clover Earthkind Hair Salon in Vancouver.
Ms. Vanderleij said she decided against bringing the Brazilian Blowout into her salon when the company refused to provide a comprehensive ingredient list.
Darren Praznik, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, said companies must follow strict regulations and take into account when new research indicates certain ingredients may pose a risk. "We do not want to be producing products that cause harm," he said. "We keep up with ingredient safety."
Under Canadian law, formaldehyde in cosmetics cannot exceed 0.2 per cent, but Health Canada testing showed Brazilian Blowout contains 12 per cent. It issued an advisory on Oct. 7, warning consumers not to use the product. Several more complaints have been reported since the advisory was issued, said Mr. Holub, who added that the department investigates all consumer complaints.
Brazilian Blowout, the California-based company that sells the product, declined an interview, but it said in a statement that the tests that found formaldehyde were flawed. It has employed the expertise of Doug Schoon, scientist and founder of Schoon Scientific & Regulatory Consulting, LLC, who said the testers mistook methylene glycol for formaldehyde.
But Dave Palmer, acting head of the department of chemistry at the University of Saskatchewan, said that explanation is completely misleading. Methylene glycol is, in essence, a liquid form of formaldehyde, which is also known as formalin. When methylene glycol is heated, as it is during applications of Brazilian Blowout solutions and similar products, the gas formaldehyde is produced, Dr. Palmer said.