Will Anything Change?

As I sit back and discover the endless possibilities we have to change our industry, I often think if the currents events are just a ban-aid on the problem of the Formaldehyde issue in our industry. Last year women’s magazines and pop culture blogs were afire with the news that the popular Brazilian Blowout–an expensive salon treatment that promises to smooth and straighten hair for up to six months–released formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Hair Scare! Brazilian Bombshell! It was a story made for clever headlines and consumer backlash. Not only was the treatment exposing women to carcinogens, the products used in the Brazilian Blowout treatment were actually labeled “formaldehyde free,” when they clearly weren’t. Moreover, in the midst of the media blitz, the U.S. federal government’s National Toxicology Program officially added formaldehyde to its list of substances known to cause cancer, and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) declared that one product, Brazilian Blowout Acai Professional Smoothing Solution, contains “unacceptable” levels of formaldehyde.

You’ll notice, however, that the Brazilian Blowout did not disappear from salon menus. In September 2011, the FDA sent Mike Brady, chief executive officer of Brazilian Blowout maker GIB LLC, a firmly worded letter stating that the company’s products contain formaldehyde and were thus mislabeled. But while it might seem logical for the FDA to then remove that product from consumers’ reach, instead it focused on the need for the products to be labeled appropriately. According to both the letter in question and the language of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, it is the manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure that the products it markets are safe and otherwise in compliance with all applicable legal and regulatory requirements.

In addition to the FDA letter, GIB LLC was also sued by the state of California, where it is headquartered. The results of that suit came through in the form of a settlement that requires GIB, LLC, which does business under the name Brazilian Blowout, to cease deceptive advertising that describes two of its popular products as formaldehyde-free and safe. The company must also make significant changes to its website and pay $600,000 in fees, penalties and costs.

Which begs the question: Should California law–and beyond that, federal law–do more to protect consumers? After all, how many people really read labels, much less on products that are part of a third-party service? And this is a product that, because it releases formaldehyde gas, could affect even those who have chosen not to purchase it.

Opponents have argued that consumers essentially have the right to expose themselves to whatever carcinogens they choose. If you’re to pull this beauty product from shelves, the thinking goes, then you’d also have to pull cigarettes. Then again, if beauty products containing carcinogens had to have the same sort of Surgeon General warnings on them that packs of cigarettes do, perhaps companies would think twice about producing such products. The cigarette analogy works on another level: Remember how smoking bans started when advocates linked second-hand smoke exposure to unfair working conditions? The same route is likely to be taken here, with an eye toward protecting the health and rights of salon workers. Health advocates are pushing for the FDA to step in and do more, especially in light of California’s legal decisions.

The FDA, which has little authority to do much in these sorts of cases, thanks to the wording of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, did warn GIB LLC that failure to correct its violations “may result in enforcement action without further notice, including, but not limited to, seizure and/or injunction.” The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the National Healthy Nail and Beauty Salon Alliance are calling on the FDA to follow through with its threat and not only seize Brazilian Blowout products, but ban the use of formaldehyde in hair products. It sounds logical enough, but they may end up with an unlikely opponent in their quest: female consumers.

The thing is, despite nearly two years now of bad press, the Brazilian Blowout is still a popular treatment. Perhaps not quite as popular as it was, but popular nonetheless. Anecdotally, in the past six months I’ve mentioned to at least five female friends who are fond of the treatment that it contains a known carcinogen. Across the board the response was essentially the same, “Doesn’t everything cause cancer these days? Besides, personally I think it’s worth it.”

It’s a response that leads the discussion in one of two ways: On the free market side, there’s the argument that this is a product people want and they should be allowed to buy it, provided they understand the risks; on the public health side, there’s the argument that in some cases consumers need to be protected not only from companies but also from themselves. The same argument crops up around things like bag bans and proposed taxes on unhealthy food and in broader political debates about how and when government should intervene in business. Point being, while the great Brazilian Blowout debate may seem silly, the result of it could have broad implications.