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Felipe Dana  /  AP
Adriana Guedes has her hair straightened by hair dresser Tania Machado at a salon in Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
updated 2/23/2011 3:53:48 PM ET 2011-02-23T20:53:48

Erlice de Oliveira juggles two kids, a full-time job, a long commute — and really resents the time it takes to tame her curly hair every morning.

She had heard of a hair smoothing treatment that worked well but used potentially dangerous chemicals. Still, all her friends were talking about it and Hollywood celebrities endorsed it. She decided to check it out.

"It looks like I just walked out of the salon," the secretary said. "My life is rushed; I can't go to the salon all the time. This is easy and practical."

Known as the Brazilian Blowout in the United States, the treatment surfaced around 2005 in Brazil, where a combination of high humidity and a largely mixed-race, curly haired population made for a nation of eager customers. It soon spread throughout North America and Europe.

Available in several brands, the process often contains varying levels of formaldehyde, which has been classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a probable carcinogen. According to complaints, it has made some stylists cough and reddened the eyes of clients.

The flap has rattled the beauty world: Canadian authorities issued a warning about possible health hazards; France pulled products with high levels of formaldehyde; the Oregon occupational health agency tested 100 samples and found many labeled "formaldehyde free" that had more than the 0.1 percent of the chemical allowed in U.S. products.

A later air sample test of salons in Oregon found levels of formaldehyde complied with safety standards, but Michael Wood, who heads the state's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said in a statement, "It is clear that the levels are high enough to cause concern."

Repeated e-mails and phone calls to the Los Angeles office handling public relations for the Brazilian Blowout brand were not returned. In a November news release, the company underscored the air sample tests from Oregon that found "formaldehyde exposure levels safely below OSHA's Action Level."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is still investigating whether the ingredients cause health problems. The California attorney general, meantime, has filed a lawsuit alleging the Brazilian Blowout brand has high levels of formaldehyde despite claiming otherwise on its website and other advertising.

A separate class action lawsuit filed in California makes similar allegations of false advertising, though includes no reports of illness.

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"Our client filed suit because she felt that she and other consumers were mislead by claims that the Brazilian Blowout hair treatment was all natural, and did not involve the use of formaldehyde or other harsh chemicals," said San Francisco attorney Daniel Girard. "We have been contacted by many consumers and salon workers who have expressed interest in the litigation."

After hours with her stylist applying the products, blow-drying her hair then flat-ironing it at 450 degrees — which creates clouds of acrid-smelling smoke that stings the eyes — Oliveira remains a satisfied customer with a no-fuss mop of shiny black hair.

She has been preaching the benefits of the process to friends ever since, and had another treatment since the first in July.

The treatment was nothing short of a miracle for women with curly, kinky or hard-to-tame hair. After a lifetime of fighting frizz with endless sprays and creams only to see their efforts vanish with a gust of wind, they could get a smooth, fresh-from-the-salon look that lasted for months.

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Because of the health concerns, however, some salons in the U.S. have stopped offering the Brazilian Blowout. Upscale salons in Ipanema, the Rio beachside neighborhood that sets fashion trends in Brazil, have sworn off treatments that use formaldehyde.

Jussara Fernandes said she won't let anything with the chemical into her Ipanema salon, which instead offers four different types of hair smoothing or straightening treatments with prices ranging up to $250.

She remembers as a child hearing her mother and other women mention formaldehyde as a potent straightener in home-brewed mixes. In her 14 years as a stylist, she's seen horrors from overuse of the chemical — women with bald patches from negative reactions, or ulcers on their head.

"I'm adamantly against it," she said. "I have clients who've been coming here for years — I care about their health and the health of my professionals. But there are people who do it."

Many of the women who've grown addicted to their smooth locks continue to swear by the process — and many salons in Brazil and the U.S. continue to offer versions of the treatment with reduced formaldehyde levels.

"The smell is still really strong — you can't have children in the salon, and you have to have the fan on," said Oliveira, who works for a real estate agency.

It's a small price to pay, she said, for the ability to wake up, shower and be out of the house in 15 minutes with perfect hair.

As long as stylists and clients are well-informed and take precautions, it's worth it, said Xavier Guerin, a business partner at the Point de Vue salon in West Hollywood, Calif. The salon does Brazilian Blowout treatments, though they're careful not to book several treatments in a day, and they keep the place well-ventilated.

"Time in our modern society is such an issue, and you need to be more and more perfect. There is all this pressure," he said. "My experience is that most of our clients are ready to pay the price."

Hair dressers in Brazil are also trying to walk the line between a product that will give their clients what they want but not hurt the stylist who has to work with it every day.

"There are women who won't live without formaldehyde now," said Tania Machado, who has been a hair stylist for 13 years in Rio. "They were slaves to the salon, coming in every week for a blow-dry. For them, it was a godsend. For us, who do it every day, it's not so good."

Her salon also takes care to ventilate well and avoid doing several processes at once.

When the straightening treatment started in Brazil, hair dressers mixed their own formulas in beakers with formaldehyde, water, keratin and other ingredients.

In 2009, the government agency in charge of health and safety, Anvisa, started cracking down on salons that overuse the chemical. In January alone, they investigated 202 salons suspected of spiking their products, according to a spokesman. The sale of formaldehyde in pharmacies and supermarkets was forbidden in 2009 to stop the practice.

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The new products, with limited amounts of formaldehyde, don't straighten the hair as much or last as long, which leaves many stylists and their clients longing for the days when the product was unregulated.

"These new products, they just don't work as well — you have to do it two, three, four times on some people for it to really work," said Ana Paula Santana, a hair stylist in a storefront salon in Rio. "If you're going charge someone $120 for something, it had better make a difference."

In spite of the prohibition on using higher doses of the chemical, it still goes on in back yards around town, said Felipe Peres, hair dresser at Prima Qualitta, in downtown Rio. He hears of salons that close down at night and take in clients. He also sees women with brittle hair ruined by too much formaldehyde who come in desperate for a fix.

"We're not chemists, we're hairdressers," he said. "There are people who aren't even hairdressers who do this."

Brazil is also changing. Until recently, advertisements for jobs would ask for applicants with "good appearance," which was a euphemism for white, said Eliza Larkin Nascimento, an author of books on Brazil and race, and the director of IPEAFRO, an institute focusing on Afro-Brazilian studies. Curly, kinky hair wasn't seen as professional or attractive.

"There is a racist culture in Brazil, and one of its expressions is a beauty standard that values what is European," said Larkin Nascimento. "Discrimination in Brazil rides a lot on appearance — on facial features, on hair texture. Hair is a great focus, a great symbol."

Now, a chain of 11 salons focused on women who want to wear their hair curly is finding demand hard to meet. It was started by a former housecleaner who was tired of straightening her own hair with harsh chemicals.

The salons, called Instituto Beleza Natural, don't use any products with formaldehyde.

"In the '70s and '80s, the only solution for women with wavy or kinky hair was straightening," said one of the founders, Leila Velez. "Nowadays, it's possible to wear hair with this structure and keep it healthy and beautiful, without transforming it into something else."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Why are women obsessed with their hair?

  1. Closed captioning of: Why are women obsessed with their hair?

    >>> we are back this morning kicking off a special series "it's all about the hair." this is our makeup room where our hair is styled each and every morning, it could be long or short, sleek or bold, curly or straight. but no matter how you cut it, for women , hair is always a hot topic. mary tyler moore 's flip. dorothy hamill 's wedge. farrah fawcett 's feathered wings. jennifer aniston 's rachel look andee ons ebeyonce's weave.

    >> i think it is only natural we want to steal their style and i think hair is one of the easier ways to get their look.

    >> in a recent "people style watch" magazine poll, jennifer aniston 's highlights, gwyneth paltrow 's bob, and katie holmes 's haircut topped the list.

    >> a hair style is very important. that's the first thing people say. we're very connected to our hair.

    >> we have a tendency to look at people's hair and say, gosh, their hair is gorgeous, i wish my hair would do that. the truth is their hair probably doesn't even do that. they probably spend a lot of time and money to get their hair like that.

    >> here in the u.s. we sent $7.5 billion a year on hair products alone. a poll out shows women get their haircut on average five times a year. half the women in the survey say they color their hair.

    >> vy it colored every month and a half or so.

    >> i'm in the salon probably once every three months to do my highlights.

    >> reporter: all this time on our hair adds up. according to a british survey, women spend a total of 2 1/2 years of their life working on their hair.

    >> nothing says more about a woman than the way she wears her hair. you can tell if she's happy or if she's depressed.

    >> reporter: that "consumer reports" poll also found 44% of women say their mood was affected by a bad hair day . and 26% say they have cried after getting a bad haircut.

    >> thinking about your hair is one of the places you can decide, do i feel confident about myself? am i telling other people that i feel confident about myself.

    >> reporter: why are we so obsessed with good hair?

    >> clothes, you can take off. makeup you can take off, but hair you can't take off. women are obsessed with hair because it is kind of the crowning glory of who they are.

    >> so here to tease out the drama of women and their hair, "today's" women 's lifestyle contributor and editor in chief of "glamour" magazine, cindy levy. laura barron, and tamika ray. cindy, start us off. why this obsession? i know it is the first thing you notice about somebody.

    >> as a matter of fact, historically it's always been true. you look at fertility statues, these ladies had dos. we've always been obsessed. i think it is because your hair is the shorthand way of telling the world what kind of woman you are. are you a sort of no-nonsense, wash-and-go kind of girl? are you an individual and you're going to put pink streaks in? are you super feminine and conventional? what is it about you?

    >> is there something unhealthy about it when you think about spending at least two years of your life taking care of your hair?

    >> that means there is two years of your life that people aren't looking at your thighs. you know? it's also -- let's be honest, every woman wants to feel beautiful and the hair is the easiest thing to do. you take a blow dryer or go to the salon, you get it done, you look good. you know it.

    >> when you a bad hair day is basically a bad day .

    >> sure. all together, please. but you have to claim it. this is my thing. you're always going to have a bad hair day . but if you give it the power, you're screwed for the rest of the day. you have to just take it over and be like, whatever it is -- i have curly hair naturally. really i don't know what it is going to be when i get out the shower. you have to just claim it, embrace it and say i'm still powerful, i'm still beautiful and rock it, girl.

    >> but you say your hair defines your personality.

    >> it absolutely does. that's the first thing you see. a new york block away is the silhouette of someone's hair. you're right, if it is perfect and not one hair is out of place, that woman is in power, she knows what she's talking about. but i've been known to rock a very asymmetrical wild afro because i'm spontaneous, and i'm a little unpredictable. that's who i am as a person. that does sort of describe the person that you are. as women we have so much control over what people see about us.

    >> but also hair styles change. they come and they go.

    >> yes, they do. we all have those moments we all look back and say, oh, my gosh, what was i thinking?

    >> i think we have some pictures.

    >> oh, no!

    >> there you go.

    >> but that's my late '80s virginia mullet. i think there was a lot of product going on there. science was not on my side.

    >> women obsess. what about men?

    >> i think men are getting in on this, too. we're seeing a rise of male vanity.

    >> you mention it used to be on the cover of your magazine, the woman always had to have long hair. but that has changed.

    >> completely. this is the gospel of women 's magazines, not just mine. you needed the long, flowing, feminine waves to sell a magazine. that's not true. you can have close, cropped hair, dyed hair . we're seeing more openness to extreme hair now among women . women want to make a statement.

    >> it is also the emotional attributes we put to hair. you see long hair and you think, that woman is getting hers pulled.

    >> look at your hair.

    >> oh, that's great.

    >> that was the look.

    >> what a perfect segment. yeah. that was actually the tamed version. i used to like to show that single curl and just throw it over my ear. yes, it was horrible.

    >> we showed some pictures in the piece of celebrities that have influenced hair styles like jennifer aniston and others. is it still the case?

    >> i think it is. i think women just look to celebrities to get ideas about what to do with their hair. i think what's different now is that there is a wider range. you might want the long gossip girl wave but you also might want the lady gaga look. i think there is a lot to choose from now.

    >> a little more high-maintenance, the lady gaga look.

    >> again we also go back to the emotional attributes that we put to the hair. we see a lady gaga and we think she must be creative, she must be happy. she is expressing herself. we tant to express ourselves. we give so much credibility to what a woman's hair looks like.

    >> also the hair is not just defining you. very often it is making a political statement as well.

    >> yeah.

    >> certainly back in the '60s, women with the afros, it was a statement about being proud of who you are and --

    >> absolutely.

    >> i kind of adopted that a little bit. i really wanted to feel powerful. i got to tell you, with the afro i got stopped on the street at least 20 times a day. look, this is the worst hair i ever had. look at that hair! i thought it was cute. i wanted a spiky little hair style so i permed it and it was wrong.

    >> i've always found when my hair is changed, i think it is good in the moment. maybe if we're sitting here five years from now -- look at mine.

    >> you look adorable!

    >> oh meredith, i love that.

    >> if that's your worst look --

    >> but i guess my point is, we think we look good now, in five years will we look at these pictures --

    >> all that matters is in the moment, right now. you are strutting and in the moment you are feeling like a full, powerful woman. beautiful.

    >> in five years we will destroy the digital images .

    >> there you go.

    >> if only we could.

    >> i think you all look great.

    >> thank you!

Photos: Stars’ scary hair moments

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  1. Halle Berry

    "In the '80s it was all about big hair, lots of makeup, and trying to look older than you really were," the Oscar winner told InStyle in March 2009.

    "I looked older when I was 20 than I do now at 42." As for the cut shown in this '94 pic, Berry said: "It looks like a backward mullet!"

    More Celebrity Hair Scares (Jordan Strauss/wireimage, Jeff K / InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Jessica Biel

    "When I was 17, I cut my hair up to my ears," the actress revealed in our September 2004 issue. "It was a blunt cut all the way around, and I used to hairspray it until it was stiff. When I look back, I'm like, Ugh!" (Kevin Mazur/wireimage, Jim Smeal / InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Sheryl Crow

    "At the height of my success in the '90s, after my first record, I confounded my record label by chopping all my hair off. Basically it looked like, 'Oh, my record sales are plummeting and people hate me!'" the singer told us at the Healthy Child Healthy World Gala in Beverly Hills. "The haircut was great — it was the two years of growing it out that was a nightmare. Never again." (Kevin Mazur/wireimage, Robin Pla / InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Claire Danes

    When asked about her worst hair moment at the Gucci Icon Temporary Sneaker Store opening in New York City, the actress replied, "Manic Panic Red. Does that count as a disaster?" (Full disclosure: In 1994, we loved Angela Chase's hair color in "My So-Called Life.")

    Rachel Zoe's Top 10 Fashion Must-Haves (Jennifer Graylock/jpistudios, Ma / InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Jane Krakowski

    "I had a really tragic cut at the beginning of Season 2 of 'Ally McBeal,'" the actress said in our April 2000 issue. "Someone convinced me that it would be good to layer my hair. I basically looked like Ronald McDonald." (Kevin Mazur/wireimage, Everett C / InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Ricki Lake

    At the Healthy Child Healthy World Gala in Beverly Hills, Lake was eager to share her scariest moment: "Oh my god! When John Waters made me dye my hair two colors —platinum blond and dark brown — for 'Hairspray,'" she confessed.

    "People think it was a wig, but it was my real hair. And honestly, I was 18 years old and my hair was never as good as before that film. But it was worth it!"

    10 Hairstyles That Are Always In Style (Gabriela Maj/getty, New Line Cin / InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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