Frizz phobe Susannah Taylor is a huge fan of the mane-taming Brazilian blow-dry treatment. But is it damaging her health in the process? She attempts to get some straight facts
In my almost 15 year career in the beauty industry, I have never, EVER known a treatment that is more life-changing than the Brazilian blow-dry. Mother Nature blessed me with crazy fuzz ball hair – I’m not talking beautiful bouncy waves or curls (God, I would love that!), or a Pre-Raphaelite mane but hair that’s more akin to a long haired sheep – that, or Mick Hucknall. I went off my hair at a young age. I used to get called ‘Frazzle’ by the boys at school, and I clearly remember one boy once saying to me ‘You’d be all right looking if it wasn’t for your hair.” (The little tyke went on to need inch thick glasses. Ha! That’s karma for you.) But when I hit puberty, the frizz got worse – especially around my hairline which was a halo of hormonal fuzz and nothing would tame it (GHDs sadly weren’t invented back then.) When I was 17, however, I discovered how to blow-dry the fuzz ball properly, which was a total revelation and something I’ve done ever since. However, drying my hair little section by little section is seriously time consuming, and sometimes I’ve been known only to wash my hair once a week because of the effort it requires – it’s something I have to schedule into my life. Plus, I always live in fear of being caught in a downpour without an umbrella.
Then, three years ago, I discovered the Brazilian blow-dry – and I’m not exaggerating when I say it literally changed my life. Not to be confused with the other type of down-below Brazilian, the Brazilian blow-dry or blowout is a smoothing (not straightening) treatment for the frizz-phobic. Originating in Brazil where hair is notoriously difficult to tame and the climate is humid, the treatment, which involves drying and then ironing a chemical and keratin-infused lotion onto the hair (more on that later) basically knocks out all frizz, leaving hair smooth, silky, and unbelievably easy to manage. I can even just blast it with a hairdryer, and it falls into a pleasing tousle rather than winding itself up into a poodle-like mess. It will stay like this really until it grows out of my hair (curly roots can be interesting), while for other people it wears off over time. If all this sounds too good to be true, then perhaps it is, because the ‘magic’ ingredient in all Brazilian blow dries, it turns out, is formaldehyde; a chemical used in carpet adhesives, paint, wart-killing disinfectant and is probably most well known for embalming dead bodies. According to Zoltan Vargyai ) in London’s Covent Garden (also known by beauty editors as the King of Brazilian blow dries), the story goes that in Brazil when they were washing down bodies with the stuff, they realised it also made dead peoples’ hair dead straight. Hence the hair smoothing treatment was apparently born. Lovely. But that’s not all. Formaldehyde, when used in high quantities, is thought to be carcinogenic, and worry over the safety of the Brazilian blow-dry was brought to the fore at first in the US. There they were often using a very high percentage of the stuff: 8.7-10.4% (according to the US Food and Drug Administration), and members of staff apparently complained of stinging eyes and sometimes breathing problems among other health issues. Zoltan informs me that in Brazil, too, formaldehyde is often as high as 8-10%. In Europe, however, the EU guidelines state that usage of formaldehyde must be lower than 0.2%. My question is, is 0.2% enough to be damaging to our health? After all, apparently many nail hardening products contain a greater percentage and there’s rarely a fuss made about those. I can only believe that it isn’t the case, else these guidelines wouldn’t be in place and the stuff would be banned altogether, surely? According to Zoltan, who knows everything there is to know about the subject, it’s not the product on your hair that’s the worry (after all your hair is dead, and they never apply it to the scalp anyway), but the fumes that are given off when the product is dried into the hair, which puts the stylist more at risk than it would yourself. At his salon he explains that instead of blasting the hair with a hairdryer, they dry hair on a low heat to minimise any gases that could possibly be released. His key piece of advice is not to be fooled by brands who say they have ‘formaldehyde free’ versions. “They may have,” he says, “But they won’t work – I have tried them all and it’s the formaldehyde that makes the hair straight.” Either that, he says, or their product does contain formaldehyde and they are pretending it doesn’t. So my guideline would be this: if you’re having a Brazilian blow-dry, always ask what percentage of formaldehyde is in the product or ask to see the ingredients list. Look for the phrase ‘propylene glycol’ which is hydrated formaldehyde too. If it’s greater than 0.2%, don’t go there. Even if the results are nothing short of miraculous.