The Brazilian Blowout Hoax, Part 4: A Tale of Two Studies…and How The Media Reported on Each

Please read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3

Contrary to recent media reports, the Brazilian Blowout hair treatment is safe for use.

Today I’ll present contrasting studies on the product, to show the difference between a properly performed study and a botched one — and how the media reports on each. A reminder on what we’re looking at: The controversy regarding Brazilian Blowout centers around the amount of formaldehyde allegedly released during a treatment. A harmless alcohol known as methylene glycol is in every bottle of Brazilian Blowout solution. During a treatment, methylene glycol can be converted to formaldehyde in tiny amounts when it reacts with water.

OSHA has two important safety limits: The Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL – an 8-hour time-weighted average) and Short-Term Exposure Limit (STEL – a 15 minute exposure measurement). Both are measured in parts per million (ppm).

First, we look at the correctly performed study, and the media’s coverage of it.

Do It Right

Dr. James Haw is the director of Environmental Studies Program and the Ray R. Irani, Chairman of Occidental Petroleum Corp., Professor of Chemistry at the University of Southern California. His work has been published 170 times in peer-reviewed journals. he’s been lecturing all over the world for 30 years. He’s been the recipient of 45 grants over the same time period, including one from the E.P.A. His credentials are impeccable.

He recently visited two Los Angeles salons and conducted fully documented, rigorous scientific testing using the same methodology as OSHA. The results of the study yielded formaldehyde exposure levels to be almost non-existent.

“The least advantageous way to use my data to estimate the stylist’s 15 min STEL is to imagine that the entire dose of formaldehyde measured over 35 min. was actually delivered in a single15-minute exposure. This worst-case interpretation results in a value of 0.054 ppm, well below the OSHA limit of 2 ppm. …The worst possible 8 hour time-weighted average exposure from these data…leads to an 8-hr. time-weighted exposure value of 0.026 ppm , well below the OSHA PEL of 0.75 ppm”.

For the second salon, the STEL was measured at 0.160ppm, well below OSHA’s limit of 2 ppm. The PEL was measured at 0.052 ppm, well below the OSHA limit of 0.75ppm. The entire study has been posted on the company’s website.

Here’s the media coverage of Dr. Haw’s study:

Do It Wrong

Now, a just-released study by the San Francisco-based private chemical consulting firm ChemRisk is, in my opinion, so blatantly and fundamentally flawed that it should never have been made public. This is not the first time a ChemRisk study has had questions raised about it. The company got caught in a big scandal involving PG&E a number of years ago.

Dr. Jennifer Pierce, the senior industrial hygenist for ChemRisk who authored the study, conducted a pro-bono test in a Chicago salon to see just how much formaldehyde is released in a treatment. A stylist, identified by Dr. Pierce as “having been trained in the Brazilian Blowout treatment”, conducted four treatments on a mannequin with a human hair wig of medium length. However, ChemRisk botched the most important part of the entire experiment.

The stylist used two ounces of Brazilian Blowout solution when the instructions called for half that amount.

The result was that 2.35 ppm of formaldehyde was released, over OSHA’s 2 ppm limit, grossly overstating the amount of formaldehyde released by the Brazilian Blowout treatment, which is what you might expect when one uses way more product than directed.

How could this simple mistake get past ChemRisk? Didn’t they read the instructions on how much Brazilian Blowout solution should be used?

Dr. Pierce told me in a telephone interview that she obtained the bottle of Brazilian Blowout solution from a third party vendor and that “the bottle had no instructions on it, there was no instructional insert, and no external instructions were provided…so we relied on the stylist’s training as to the correct amount”.

Bad move. The stylist used more of the product than is prescribed. Medium-length hair treatments are instructed to use 1 ounce, or 2 capfuls. She used two ounces. Indeed, instructions for the proper dosage are included in an online video on Brazilian Blowout’s website, which the stylist had access to and had been trained to follow.

[local /files/2011/11/BB-instructional-for-BJ.mov]



Even worse, the peer-reviewed Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene (JOEH) is publishing this faulty study. Not only did ChemRisk blow it, but a group of “expert scientists” reviewing the work didn’t bother to track down the facts. Wow, if this is all it takes to get media attention and publication in a scientific journal, I’m going to do a study on the dangerous effects of what happens when two hydrogen atoms are covalently bonded to a single oxygen atom!

And wouldn’t you know it, this is the same Journal that published the scandal-plagued PG&E study, and later had to retract it. Of course, it took them 9 years to do so. I wonder how long it’ll take for this debacle to get pulled, as it should.

Dr. Haw weighed in on the ChemRisk study in his paper, as well.

“…ChemRisk studied formaldehyde exposures from use of various hair-smoothing products, which were applied in 2-ounce quantities (ca. 57 g). That application quantity exceeds the largest amount reported here by over a factor of three and the lower amount by nearly a factor of five…substantial increases in the amount of product applied would result in…a multiplicative increase in formaldehyde emissions”.

MSM media coverage for ChemRisk includes L.A. Times, NPR, KTLA…ugh, I’m sick already and it’s already three outlets more than covered Dr. Haw’s study.

Study Proves The Opposite: BB is Safe

Dr. Haw’s study not only demonstrated that the product is safe, but ChemRisk helped prove that using too much product will skew formaldehyde results far higher. They discredited their own study. The conclusions are obvious:

Brazilian Blowout is safe. The amount of formaldehyde released by a treatment is well below OSHA standards, and I’ll illustrate just how insignificant this formaldehyde exposure really is.

1.0 ppm means that in every kilogram of air, there is 1 milligram of formaldehyde. See that little milligram cube below, and the gram cube next to it? Every one thousand gram cubes has less than 1 tiny little milligram cube.

Media creates another Boogeyman

I found out all of this information in about 30 minutes, simply because I was familiar with the controversy and saw an L.A Times blog that offered the company’s perspective. As for the blog’s author, Susan Carpenter, shame on her (and the Times) for not asking ChemRisk the hard questions, or even bothering to do the simple research. Furthermore, if ChemRisk can blow it, anyone can, including Oregon OSHA — which is what Mr. Brady asserts. How about if Ms. Carpenter rediscovers true journalism. I’ve already done the hard work for her.

I thought a journalist’s job was to seek out facts and present a balanced story, not parrot what a study says, stoke the fear of stylists and consumers, and wipe her hands of the matter.

But here’s the real story: this isn’t just about a faulty study and the media’s witless demonization of a perfectly safe product. It’s about the thousands of stylists and salon owners across the country that have probably seen their income drop significantly because of sloppy journalism and sloppy science, stoking fear in their customers. Fear is a powerful dissuader, and chemophobia can scare consumers away from a lot of things.

Yet the MSM is nowhere to be found whenever a study acquits the product.

Next time: I’ll wrap up the series, and provide analysis on what this story reveals about government, the media, and you.

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