Hair and formaldehyde, power and health

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Life occasionally delivers moments when my newer author life intersects with my thirty-year industrial hygiene profession. I didn’t expect Brazilian Blowout to be captured within the pages of The Female Persuasion, as I leisurely read this 2018 novel by Meg Wolitzer while on vacation. This chemical hair straightener briefly shocked me away from my traditional safety and health responsibilities as I pursued its usage here in Oregon in 2010. 

I bookmarked my page in The Female Persuasion, a novel I found well-written if not a tad long and probably resonating more to those of my generation than my daughters. Like a good industrial hygienist I pulled up the most recent Safety Data Sheet online to disappointedly learn that the product still contains an unacceptable amount of formaldehyde-releasing chemical (methylene glycol). What better example for Meg Wolitzer to use to illustrate the power of society – here the beauty industry – over the largely female, impacted stylists and consumers?

While I have written professional blogs on this topic, I do marvel in the complete freedom I exert within this personal blog. A place I can profess my own ideas and opinions without regard to its fit within the scope of my employment or my employer’s mission. Don’t get me wrong, my own obsessiveness requires me to know facts before I make claims. In my life, facts are important. Yet, I never publicly voiced how much my initial investigation into the Brazilian Blowout hair product troubled me. How many sleepless nights I had as I attempted to do the right thing: to share the stories and health worries of stylists speaking out while keeping within the timeframe required to demonstrate fact. To deal with the stress of being impacted by a frivolous lawsuit. Social media posters claimed I “worked for the competitor” and was “spiking” samples with formaldehyde. Really? Posters claimed my employer was a fictitious University. Really? Backers of the product claimed formaldehyde occurs naturally in apples and humans. (Um, hello, not at 10% – or 5% or 1%, for that matter.) People making money on this product claimed the product made women feel better about themselves. I hated those few weeks until I could make the public claim and let those stylists know, yes! You are right! And it should go without saying my own sleepless nights or discomfort didn’t compare to those adversely affected by the use of this product.

What I learned in all of that was the frustration of responding to those selling false goods and lies. The ability of those in power – power as money, advertising strength or popular product ownership – to shut down those with valid issues, worries and truths. We saw it then and we see it now. Over and over it proves to me who our biggest heroes are: whistle blowers. Those who speak out. Those who realize they are up against something so big, so hurtful, they are finally willing to put everything on the line. So, all these years later, I give another thank you to the hair stylists and their allies who keep pushing and asking and demanding. Groups like Women’s Voices for the Earth, stylists like Jennifer and Molly who knew better and stood up for those who didn’t. Salons that wanted to do the right thing for their employees and clients. Consumers who stood behind them and said no. I am hopeful that stylists who were affected have returned to good health, and I grieve for those whose health was permanently damaged.

And so I hope. For the sharing of truth – truth that supports health rather than money.  In the end this issue is simply another example of the power struggle many face when big business and big dollars push unhealthy ideas onto those less powerful: in this case, the falsified idea of beauty. But we consumers have perhaps the most important role here. We must take our turn to do the right thing.  Until we stand up and demand that the products sold to us don’t damage people and the earth around us, we are supporting those hurting others. Baby steps matter, and every day we can commit to take a new one. 

Oh, and by the way. Thanks, Meg. You gave me another reason to write a blog rather than stumble on my writer’s block related to my next book. And now…time to get back to my day job. 

Read Dede’s memoir: My Music Man.

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