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Let’s talk about the Brazilian Blowout.

It’s being talked about all over the place, but what is it, and is it safe?

The Brazilian Blowout (BB) is a chemical/thermal  process that uses aldehydes to straighten the hair for a period of 8 to 12 weeks.  When they were first introduced, the BB formulas were based on a chemical reaction using formaldehyde and a 450° pressing.  The process takes 2 to 3 hours to complete.  This is still the main system, although some products are using other aldehydes.

So what’ s the problem?  Formaldehyde (which sometimes shows up on labels as “formalin”, the commercial  37% aqueous formaldehyde solution) is naturally a gas and is a suspected carcinogen, especially when inhaled.  And although you’re not inhaling the Brazilian Blowout, you are still being exposed to the formaldehyde gas.

When a solution (like the BB) is exposed to air, co things, like the formaldehyde, evaporate and build up in the surrounding area as a gas.  Heating the product, one of the steps in the BB, drives the formaldehyde into the air even faster.  So you end up inhaling formaldehyde.  Repeated treatments mean repeated exposure to gaseous formaldehyde.  And more exposure to a suspected carcinogen.

Formaldehyde is also known to cause allergic reactions and skin irritation in a decent part of the population.  That’s why you’ll almost never see “formalin” on cosmetic labels. 

Would I go for the Brazillian Blow out?  No.  There are other options like Japanese Thermal straightening and other chemical straighteners using thio-sulfates.  For highly curled hair, lye straighteners are also an option (yes there are hazards with the lye, but a lot depends on the experience of the person using it).   These processes all last longer than the Brazillian Blowout, can cost less (or more) and might take longer to process. 

But none of these processes have me inhaling a skin irritant, sensitizer and suspected  carcinogen

Make your own decisions.  Don’t go for a new treatment just because it’s trendy, go because you’ve considered all the factors and it’s right for you. 


What about preservative-free products?

We’ve all seen them, “preservative-free” products.  But what does that really mean?

First of all, bacteria, fungus, yeasts are all around us, in the air, on surfaces and, yes, on our skin.  And our skin does a good job of protecting us and we help by washing. So why do we need to worry about the little beasties in our cosmetic products?   Well… you know what can happen if you disrupt the skin’s barrier – like if you get a cut.  You get an infection.  And cosmetics are excellent breeding grounds for bacteria, fungus and yeast (more about that later) so if you apply a contaminated product, your chances of getting an infection increase dramatically.  And contaminated products can grow mold (like you would use something with black or green fuzzies on your skin), the color and fragrance can change, skin creams and lotions can “break” (separate), and products can lose their efficacy.  So products might be “preservative-free” but they are preserved in some way.  Consumers don’t want to spend oodles of money on something only to have to throw it out next week…

First of all, what makes cosmetics susceptible to contamination?

1)  Cosmetics (and I mean cosmetics, shampoos, conditioners, hair gels, etc.) are mostly water with organic materials like surfactants, emollients, conditioners – basically anything that makes a cosmetic work.  Exactly what the bacteria, yeast and mold need to thrive :  water, food, and the air in the package.

2) Every time you use a cosmetic you are exposing it to air and usually touching the product with your finger, or an applicator, – remember, there are all kinds of nasties on your skin and in the air – so you are introducing contamination to the product.  Even if the product is sterile when you buy it, it can develop contamination just from use.

So what are your options?

1) Use products that contain the standard preservatives:  Methyl, Ethyl or Propyl Paraben, Imidazolidinyl Urea, Quaternium-15, DMDM Hydantoin are the more common ingredient names you’ll see.

2) Use low pH products.  Low pH is not a good environment for the beasties to grow.  But not all products can be formulated at a low pH.

2) Use products that contain “natural” preservatives, things like Grapefruit Seed Extract, Tea Tree Oil, Rosemary extract, Tocopherol (vitamin E),  Ascorbic Acid (vitamin C).   these materials are not as effective as the standard products and need to be used at somewhat higher levels.

3) Use aseptically packaged product.  Some products are sealed so that they cannot be opened and the product is dispensed by a pump.  This will reduce contamination but contamination can still form at the tip of the pump, especially if it is not used often.  For the best effectiveness, the product should be contained in a flexible inner pouch so (contaminated) air is not sucked into the package as product is dispensed.

4) Refrigerate the product between uses.  This will slow the growth but will not stop it completely so product can still go bad.  And I’d bet most of us wouldn’t think of going out without an emergency kit for touch ups throughout the day.

No matter how a product is “preserved”, reputable manufacturers  test to make sure their system  is effective.  So the products you buy might be preservative-free, but they are not unpreserved.

How do I pick a hair conditioner?

When you think of conditioned hair, what do you think of?  Smooth, shiny, no frizzies or split ends?  Easy to comb?  Full of body?  Easy to manage?  That’s what conditioner makers evaluate when they test their conditioners, because those are the effects consumers want.   But because everyone’s hair is different, no one formula will work for everybody, so there is a big difference among the conditioners on the market. 

Obviously, I don’t know what your hair is like or how it reacts to conditioning ingredients so I can’t tell you which specific product to buy.  What I can do is give you an idea of what kind of ingredients to look for in your conditioners to meet your particular needs.

Need or Problem Common Ingredients Why? Downsides?
Fly away or static Cetrimonium Chloride

Stearalkonium Chloride

Behentrimonium Chloride

(or any other …monium Chloride or …monium Methosulfate)

These are cationic materials that help to dissipate a static charge.  Similar to the effects that you get with dryer sheets and clothes. These materials tend to weigh down the hair if used in too high of an amount.
Easy to comb Ingredients with Amodimethicone, Dimethicone  or Methicone in the name


These are silicone derivatives that coat the surface of the hair and make it smoother so the hairs slide more easily over each other, combs, etc.  This helps to minimize future damage.

Also increase shine.

Polyquaternium -10 is a polymer derived from  from cellulose and makes the hair very slick.   

Too much can make the hair overly slick and make it difficult to style

Too much Polyquaternium-10 will give you the “greasies” and it can build up over time.

Smoother hair/no frizzies Ingredients with Amodimethicone, Dimethicone  or Methicone in the name

Protein and protein derivatives

These products coat the hair and in effect basically “glue” the split ends shut.  Hydrolyzed Protein derivatives can also penetrate hair and can improve hair strength. Excessive protein content can actually make the hair more difficult to comb (proteins are sticky!)
Body Panthenol, proteins For body, you need more friction among the hairs to give fullness.  Lesser amounts of conditioning additives are used and protein (being sticky) can increase the interaction.  None really.  These are more expensive ingredients and I’ve never seen them overused.
Manageability All of the above Need to have the right combination to give balance based on your particular needs.  Tends to favor less heavily conditioning products.  

How do I get a safe tan?

Before I answer that, let’s think about why your skin “tans”.   A tan is what happens when your skin tries to protect itself from damaging UV rays so anytime you get a tan it’s because you’ve been exposed to UV rays and you skin has been damaged.   And no, having a tan doesn’t mean that your skin is protected – the damage continues every time you are exposed to UV radiation – radiation that comes from the sun AND from the bulbs in a tanning booth. I know tanning salon operators claim that a tanning booth is a safe way to tan.  Not true.  The only way you can get a “natural” tan is by damaging your skin with UV.  (What do you expect them to say?  How are they going to get you to spend money to use a tanning booth if they admit it is no better than just going outside?  Something that is FREE!!!)  Think about it – even if you have a tan, everytime you go out in the sun, the tan gets a little darker and that means that damage is building up.    

And it doesn’t matter if you have naturally light, medium or dark skin.   UV radiation affects ALL skin.. 

So how do you get a safe tan?  You don’t (in spite of what you may hear from a tanning salon) unless you are getting an artificial tan out of a bottle or in a spray booth.

But what about everything you’ve heard about vitamin D, how people are deficient in vitamin D, and how you body produces it when you go into the sun light (without a sunscreen)?   That’s true, but there are other options to get the vitamin D you need.  Supplements are great, it fact many calcium supplements now contain vitamin D because it helps the calcium function. 

So wear a good sunscreen, stay out of the sun if possible, and take vitamin D.

Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) and acne

OK, I use an Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) cream everyday, but before I started using it I’d checked out consumer comments.  One thing that had concerned me was that some people saw an increase in their breakouts when they started using an AHA product and I am prone to breakouts.  But a lot of people reported that it gave them smoother skin.  So I figured, what the heck, I can always stop using the product if I have too many problems…

Yes in the beginning, I did see an increase in breakouts (not HUGE, but noticeable) and the label had even warned I’d see that.  But I figured it made sense.  Pimples form in blocked pores and are not always visible because they are under a thicker surface layer of dead skin cells.  When I started with the AHA product, it helped to exfoliate the surface of my skin,  also helping to unblock the pores.  So now instead of being covered by dead skin cells, etc, the pimples were nearer to the surface and more visible.  Made sense to me.  After about 2 weeks, things got better and actually improved beyond where they had been when I started.   Granted, I use a salicylic acid skin cleanser (these are sometimes called beta hydroxy acid or BHA products) every day and benzoyl peroxide as needed, but now AHA cream is now a permanent part of my routine.  And yes, my skin does feel smoother.

So the moral of the story?  1) All products don’t work the same on all consumers and 2) sometimes it takes a while to see results.

What is an organic product?

You see a lot of products making  “organic” claims on their labels but what does that really mean?

Organic products are those produced without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, etc.  but can undergo chemical processing (as opposed to natural products that don’t exclude the use of these synthetics, it’s just that the product itself does not undergo chemical processing) .  So if an ingredient is based on coconut oil, the coconuts are grown without synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers but the oil can be chemically processed into an ingredient.

The thinking behind this is that there will not be any residue from the pesticides, etc in the products you use.

One thing to watch out for:  some products will have a large “organic” tag but then in much smaller print will state that it contains 70% organic ingredients.  Read carefully before you make your decision.

What is a “natural” cosmetic product?

You’ve seen them.  Natural products.   Sounds like something good for you, but what does it mean?

In its purest sense, a natural product would be made only with things that are not chemically processed at all.  But even soaps (which are often considered to be “natural”) undergo some processing – soap is made from fats (coconut oil, tallow, etc.) reacted  to form soap.  Imagine trying to wash your hair with the starting material (the oils…) before they are reacted.  Yuck.  So natural products can contain ingredients derived from natural materials, say coconut or palm oil, instead of synthetic materials (petroleum derived, which technically comes from very old natural plants and dinosaurs…). 

So can you read the label and know that the ingredients are natural?  Not all of the time.  A lot of ingredients can be made from either natural or synthetic sources and the label names do not tell you the source.  For example, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, the cleaner in many shampoos, can be made from either natural or synthetic raw material so you can’t tell.  But something like aloe, a plant derived material, is easy to spot – sometimes showing up as aloe gel or aloe extract.

And if you read the labels, most products say that they contain natural ingredients, but do not claim to be all natural.  So read carefully so you know hat you’re buying.  And remember, just because something included “natural” ingredients, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the best product to use.  After all, poison ivy is “natural”…