Doctors raise concerns about hair straightening treatment

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by Meg Farris / Eyewitness News

wwltv.com

Posted on January 26, 2011 at 12:23 PM

Updated Wednesday, Mar 14 at 3:37 PM

NEW ORLEANS -- It's a wish come true, especially in Southeast Louisiana. Even with all the humidity and rain here, people with curly or frizzy hair can get silky straight locks that last for months.

While some women love the latest professional hair straightening treatments and have had no problems, others have safety questions.

Rachel Funel has not liked her hair since she was an adolescent.

"It was completely unmanageable, like I would say completely unmanageable," said Funel, who works for a wedding magazine.

So she decided to try one of the keratin type straightening treatments that is the rage.

"I was so nervous booking the appointment for June 5, but I actually backed out twice," Funel explained. But today, she's never looked back.

"I love it. I love it," she smiles.

But on the Oprah Winfrey blog alone there are many people saying their hair has been falling out since getting one of these Brazilian or keratin type straightening treatments. It's also mentioned in news articles.

And one viewer has been in touch with us since the late summer telling us about her hair loss that started after her third treatment. Like the bloggers, she said she is distraught. Like the bloggers, she said she's had all sorts of medical testing showing she is healthy, but she does not want to go on camera or reveal her identity.

Salon owner and hair stylist Kevin Champagne said there are more than 60 of these straightening type products on the market for professionals, with different proprietary formulas. He got one to show us how long it takes to do the treatment with the washing and application and blow-drying and high-heat flat ironing.

But he said no matter how popular these are, he won't provide the service.

"I've learned enough about the chemistry of it that I don't think the risks to the client or myself are worth it," said Champagne, who has been a stylist for 31 years and is the co-owner of Champagne and Company Hair Design in Metairie. He is also a national educator for a a brand of styling products.

The lawsuits and investigations across the U.S. and Canada are well documented by government testing, news agencies, and laboratory experts. Tests found products contained formaldehyde or aldehyde in higher quantities than were listed.

"This product is not to be used by untrained persons. Use with adequate ventilation, protective gloves and breathing masks. Decomposition of product at high temperatures release aldehyde vapors. In view of its widespread use, toxicity and volatility, exposure to aldehydes is a significant consideration for human health," Champagne reads off of the official material safety data sheet.

The doctors agree.

"Formaldehyde has been identified by the EPA as well as the National Cancer Institute as a carcinogen and in animal studies it's been shown to cause cancers in the nasal linings of rats and other creatures. So we worry about that substance," said Dr. William Coleman, a Dermatologic surgeon in Metairie and editor of the medical journal "Dermatologic Surgery."

"From the reports that have been published you know they've been found to have seven percent, 20 percent, as high as 20 percent when it should be .2 percent according to cosmetic guidelines and regulations," said Dr. Nicole Rogers, a Metairie dermatologist who specializes in hair restoration surgery.

But doctors are more concerned about the health of the stylists, saying their eyes, noses and lungs will be irritated from being continually exposed to the chemicals on client after client.

But that still doesn't answer the concern of our viewer and bloggers who say they are losing a lot of hair. So what are the doctors finding.

"I have not seen any alopecia as a result of any of the keratin treatments, alopecia being defined as loss of hair from the roots," said New Orleans Dermatologist Dr. Mary Lupo.

"I haven't been able to find anything online about these keratin treatments specifically causing hair to die permanently but there have been a lot of reports of hair breaking off," Coleman said.

"Any hair straightening procedure quite frankly makes hair brittle because it breaks those bonds. When it's straightening the hair, the hair becomes more fragile and we know that patients who straighten over and over and over again do get brittle hair and do suffer from breakage," said Metairie Dermatologist Dr. Patricia Farris.

But our viewer, who is in her 40s, says she swears her hair is falling out from the follicle and not breaking off at the scalp. She wonders if the science has not caught up with the complaints and reports.

Her biopsy reveals no scalp scarring but a condition called telogen effluvium, where her hair has been pushed prematurely into the shedding stage. It's unclear why.

The makers of one popular keratin-type straightening product say they have no data that show hair loss reports are related to their product. They say there is only the legal, small amount of aldehyde, .2 percent in the product and that it makes no fumes when being flat ironed.

They do say that the high heat of the flat iron on damaged hair will cause it to break off. They ships millions of bottles a year to salons and say instructions state the product be put no closer than one-half to one-eighth of an inch from the scalp. Doctors think that is important.

"I do not think that formaldehyde is safe in any way, shape, or form and I know even though technically your hair is dead, those chemicals getting near your scalp being absorbed I don't like," Lupo said.

"When it's in very low concentrations, it's not a problem at all. The problem is when you use it in higher concentrations as we have seen in some of these products. At high concentrations it's an irritant so it can cause rashing, itching, irritation to the skin. It's also irritating to the eyes, so we are very cautions about formaldehyde and formaldehyde levels particularly on the skin," Farris said.

Our concerned viewer said she had to keep a wet towel over her face during the treatments because of the irritation. And so did Funel. But she said even though a friend's hair is thinning from the same treatment, she is pleased.

"The keratin, I think it's like the best of both worlds. It makes you look natural and your hair's straight and you don't look fake with it," Funel said.

The FDA has gotten complaints about professional-use straightening products and wants people to report any problems they have had to the agency. Click here to do so.

 

You also may call Medwatch at 1-800-332-1088 to request a reporting form by mail.

Editor's Note: Dr. Patricia Farris is no relation to Medical Reporter Meg Farris.

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