UCT declines to name risky Brazilian hair-straightening products

File: Chante Herries has taken 15 women under her wing, teaching them the tricks of the hairdressing trade at her Parkwood salon.


JOHANNESBURG - Revelations that popular but pricey Brazilian keratin hair-straightening treatments could pose major health risks has been met with shock by consumers.

A recent study by the University of Cape Town found that the Brazilian keratin hair products available on the local market all contained concentrations of formaldehyde – some of them at dangerously high levels – even when they were clearly labelled "formaldehyde-free".

Formaldehyde is associated with eye and skin reactions and adverse pregnancy outcomes.

"It is classified as a carcinogen (or cancer-causing agent). Chrinic exposure to high concentration is associated with respiratory and blood cancers such as leukaemia and lymphomas," the study found.

The research was conducted on seven products which were not named. The university has declined to make them public, claiming their intention was not to shame manufacturers but rather to warn consumers of the dangers they faced.

Associate Professor Nonhlanhla Khumal of UCT’s Division of Dermatology was a lead researcher on the study – published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in February. 

"We looked at all seven brands that were on the SA market at the time of the study (up to end 2012) and all contained formaldehyde; six contained five times the regulated limit and five of these were labelled formaldehyde-free," Khumalo said.

She explained that the most common ways of straightening hair were with the use of heat, which breaks down hydrogen bonds that reform when hair gets wet; with relaxers, which increase the pH and permanently break down disulphide bonds; and with formaldehyde, which causes cross-linkages of side chains fixing heat-straightened hair and therefore lasting several months.

Khumalo said some companies claimed that their products worked through keratin, which is the proteins which hair and skin is made up of.

"They cannot change curly hair to &39;water resistant&39; straight, at best they can make it feel smoother," Khumalo said, debunking the claims and commenting that companies should explain how their formaldehyde-free products could achieve water-resistant straightening.

"I am not releasing the names of the products because it will take away from the objective, which is to alert the public of the danger of this group of products. The idea is not to single out individual brands," she said.

Khumalo said as technology advanced safer ways of achieving permanently straight hair would be found.

In the meantime a system of intermittent and random product testing could help improve compliance and protect the public, especially hairdressers.

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