Formaldehyde, Formalin, and Methylene Glycol by Doug Schoon and Denise Kingsley
Facts and Fiction According to Doug Schoon, a chemist and president of Schoon Scientific in Dana Point, California, any keratin treatment product that supposedly contains formaldehyde actually uses an ingredient called formalin. Formaldehyde is a gas and, as such, can't be a liquid, so could not be added as a cosmetic ingredient.
Schoon explains that formalin is created when dry formaldehyde gas is reacted with water to create a new and different substance called methylene glycol.
"Methylene glycol is a totally different chemical with completely different properties and characteristics," he says. "For years, this name mistake has been made around the world by scientists, doctors and regulators, until last December when formalin's name was officially changed in the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) dictionary." "When you heat formalin," Schoon adds, "it can convert back into the original form and release a small amount of formaldehyde gas in the air."
Schoon is currently working with a manufacturer to measure the amount of formaldehyde fumes stylists may be exposed to when using flatirons with formalin-containing products. He says it's possible cosmetologists who perform service after service may be exposed to excessive levels, but very likely a source-capture ventilation system can reduce those levels, effectively removing the gas from the air before it's inhaled.
Online postings about formaldehyde being an irritant and potential carcinogen are correct. It's associated with nasal and brain cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. However, most posters aren't aware it's a gas released during some keratin treatments, and the FDA does not regulate the amount of formalin in cosmetics, making the discussions of "legal amounts" in bottles moot. Regulation occurs through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which has strict guidelines for maximum allowable worker exposure to formaldehyde gas.
Food and Drug Association (FDA) spokesperson, Suzan Curzan, e-mails: "The FDA doesn't have specific regulations that prohibit or restrict the use of formaldehyde [formalin] in cosmetic preparations, and is unaware of safety data indicating that Brazilian keratin products pose a health hazard to consumers, under the labeled conditions of use."
That's why, for instance, the FDA takes no issue with nail hardeners containing up to 5-percent formalin. These products are more than a "coating," says Schoon. "Formalin is reactive to proteins and creates a chemical link or bridge with them." Like the second step of a perm process, keratin treatments with formalin don't break bonds in the hair, but do "fix" the keratin in place, semi-permanently. Whether ingredients other than formalin act identically is unclear. Usage Issues: by Denise Kingsley As a matter of practice, all salons should have well-ventilated storage rooms and avoid placing cross-reactive chemicals near one another. Formalin can be explosive in the presence of hydrogen peroxide. Sodium chloride, salt and ammonia are all incompatible with formalin, which is why coloring the hair before formalin-based keratin treatments is recommended.
"When you discuss the service with clients, talk about hair condition, lifestyle, expectations," says Denise Kingsley, a texture specialist who owns High Tech Hair in Denver.
Because formalin-based keratin treatments do not break bonds, users say their true power is in transforming damaged, frizzy or wavy hair. Kingsley adds that it's not the best choice for healthy, super-curly African-American hair, but if that hair type has been previously relaxed or heavily colored—the more porous it is—the better the service will work and the longer it'll last. Another must-know: You can't use a shampoo that contains sodium chloride, which breaks down formalin-based chemical links and possibly others, reversing results.