Will the Brazilian Blowout Make You Sick?

An exploration into our chemical romance

The Brazilian keratin hair treatment sounds simple enough: A gel-like mixture is painted on the hair. Twenty minutes, a blowout, some flatironing, and $250 later, former frizzballs are rewarded with the silky-smooth tresses of Pantene commercials. “Think Demi Moore,” says Kevin Gatto, owner of Collingswood’s Verde Salon. So what’s the problem, again?

Oh, right. A little thing called formaldehyde, the toxic, nostril-burning carcinogen that also happens to be the treatment’s active ingredient—and a dividing line among some of Philly’s most esteemed (and outspoken) salon owners.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s illegal,” declares Maurice Tannenbaum, owner of Gladwyne’s OMG Salon. “There are many, many hairdressers getting sick from it. It’s disgraceful that this profession is performing a service that’s known to be bad for your health.” He just might be referring to the stylists at super-plush Rittenhouse salon Giovanni & Pileggi, who can’t perform the service fast enough.

“Did you ever see that beautiful shirt or dress in a store and wonder why it looks so beautiful? Well, it’s got formaldehyde in it,” reasons Giovanni & Pileggi owner Giovanni Mele. His salon uses Marcia Teixeira keratin products containing methylene glycol, which produces formaldehyde vapor when heated. Still, Mele insists, the products are OSHA-approved, and he offers clients the choice between formaldehyde-based treatments and safer, albeit less effective, alternatives. Then, he says, “It’s on them.”

Verde’s Gatto—whose salon offers the service with the brand Coppola, which, he says, “uses the most minimal amount of chemicals possible”—predicts this controversy will soon go the way of the perm. “As technology gets better, the amount of ammonia in hair coloring is getting better. I think we’re eventually going to see [formaldehyde] go away, too.” So why don’t salons just wait for safer options?

Money, sniffs Tannenbaum. “I can’t tell you the fortunes we’ve lost because we were not doing it and other salons were,” he says. “It’s like money is more important than health.”

Well, money and the pursuit of poker-straight, Demi Moore locks.