Are you in denial about your cosmetic’s danger? A New York Times article recently reported on the risks of “hair relaxing.” Under a disturbing photo depicting two women equipped with respirators, the article goes on to describe the hidden dangers of the Brazilian Keratin Treatment (technically mislabeled “hair relaxing,” a process that uses caustic chemicals to change the texture of the hair). What is striking in the Times’ piece is not the health hazards of this hair treatment - which have been known for years - but the laissez-faire attitude among many of those involved.

With the controversy that erupted in 2007 regarding the Brazilian Keratin Treatment’s risks, a number of formulations free of formaldehyde became available. As it turns out, these so-called safe alternatives were too good to be true. The less potent versions proved to be less effective (as chronicled in this personal account), and the formaldehyde-free formulas came out not as clean as they claimed.

While some salon owners responded responsibly by banning the chemical-laden brands, others responded by retrofitting their salons with equipment to block out the noxious fumes and relegating the Brazilian process to a separate section. Meanwhile, clients have continued to shell out hundreds to subject their hair and scalp to toxins over and over again. The salons can be accused of not caring about their clients’ well-being, but how do enlightened clients justify abuse to their bodies?

It seems to be the nature of our society. Botox brings the possibility of the botulinum toxin traveling beyond the injection site and spreading throughout the body, but its surface benefits are irresistible to some. The same goes for all manners of potions and lotions we spread on our skin, seeking short-term results and ignoring the risks of suspect ingredients. Outside the realm of beauty, self-destructive behavior runs rampant. We know that cigarettes kill; yet some just can’t kick the habit. We know that junk food is bad or our bodies, but it tastes too good to resist.

The Brazilian Keratin Treatment is a highly lucrative procedure. Many salons aren’t going to ensure that their hair-straightening products are clear of harmful chemicals if it comes at the cost of their business. As the occupational health agency discovered in Oregon, manufacturers are not to be trusted despite good marketing to the contrary. If the hair-smoothing solution by Brazilian Blowout was found to contain significant amounts of formaldehyde, other lines touting “formaldehyde-free” formulas (i.e. Simply Smooth Keratin Treatment) might be tainted as well. It also remains to be seen whether formaldehyde derivatives (i.e. formalin) are safe.

On top of the damage done to a person’s own health from applying these sorts of products, just think of the environmental harm. Exposing corrosive chemicals to a scalp for long periods of time poisons the air we breathe, while rinsing them down the drain pollutes our planet’s water supply. Why do you think salon owners are investing in special ventilators and respirators for their clients? Whether their approach is to air out the hair-straightening process area or to quarantine it, the reason is the same: to escape the noxious effects of the chemical - odor, eye irritation, breathing problems, nosebleeds, and cancer.

Of course, the Brazilian Blowout manufacturer, salon workers, and paying clients are all complicit in leaking formaldehyde into the environment. But what about innocent bystanders - fellow clients surrounded by fumes in the salon, pedestrians walking past the salon’s exhaust vent, swimmers in the body of water that functions as a receptacle for the straightening solution rinsed out of hair? The impact is far greater than the Times' article implies.

Do you turn a blind eye to potentially harmful beauty treatments because you can’t live without them? When your health is at risk, ignorance is not bliss; it’s backward. In the case of formaldehyde-laced hair products, both customers getting their hair straightened and salon workers regularly handling the chemical as a means of income should be fully informed. All parties deserve to know the full ramifications of giving and receiving the treatment. And because the beauty industry is often fueled by self-denial, it behooves the manufacturers to produce safe cosmetics, and government agencies to enforce them.