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Brazilian Blowup: It's Time for the FDA to Act

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Massive hair loss, blistered scalps, severe rashes -- you might expect such complaints to prompt a federal agency charged with protecting public health to actually do something to protect the public. Not in the good ole U.S. of A.

According to documents released this week by Environmental Working Group, the U.S. FDA has known for years about health problems caused by Brazilian Blowout and keratin hair relaxers -- problems like the hair loss reported by actress Mary Louise Parker and many others.

Eight months ago, after complaints of severe allergic reactions (nose bleeds, difficulty breathing), Oregon Health and Science University tested the supposedly "formaldehyde-free" Brazilian Blowout and found significant levels of formaldehyde, a potent allergen and known cancer-causing chemical.

Canada conducted its own tests and acted quickly to ban the product; several other countries followed suit. Seeing no action from the federal government in the U.S., state agencies stepped forward to warn the public, and the California Attorney General filed a lawsuit against the LA-based manufacturer of Brazilian Blowout.

Finally this week, the federal U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration jumped in with a health alert, warning salons to stop using formaldehyde-based hair straighteners.

Yet right now, today, countless women are being exposed to dangerous levels of formaldehyde in hair salons across America. As one enthusiastic customer said to me, if this stuff was really dangerous, wouldn't FDA pull it off the market?

Ah yes, FDA, the federal agency in charge of protecting the American public from dangerous cosmetics: no word from them yet, a fact that has surprised even John Bailey, former FDA official and current spokesperson for the cosmetics industry. Bailey told TIME magazine that he'd never before seen OSHA issue a warning of this sort before FDA had acted.

But it's no surprise to those of us who have been working for years to get FDA to take action against unsafe cosmetics.

The Brazilian Blowup illustrates what we've been saying all along: FDA is in desperate need of a makeover, and so are the 70-year-old cosmetic regulations that are failing to protect public health.

For starters, FDA doesn't even have the authority to recall unsafe cosmetics such as formaldehyde-laden hair straighteners or the mercury-containing skin lighteners discovered by the Chicago Tribune. (Why are media outlets and NGOs doing the job the federal government is supposed to be doing?)

FDA can't require companies to assess cosmetics for safety or monitor health impacts on highly exposed people such as salon workers, and they can't require full labeling of cosmetics (parents might want to know, for example, that many baby shampoos also contain formaldehyde).

Federal cosmetics laws are so weak that the state of California passed its own law, the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005, to give the state authority to protect the public. The recent injunction filed by the California Attorney General is the first legal action under that law.

It's time to bring the FDA and federal cosmetic regulations into the 21st century. The federal Safe Cosmetics Act, introduced by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D, Ill.), would give FDA the authority to do its job of protecting the public. First introduced in 2010, the law would prohibit cancer-causing chemicals (like formaldehyde) from cosmetics, require full labeling of personal care products and set up a system to assess ingredient safety. The law should be reintroduced into Congress ASAP.

In the meantime, just say no to putting known carcinogens on your head! Here's a great resource for finding the safest hair straightening options.

Stacy Malkan is co-founder of the national Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of the award-winning book, "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry." Follow her on twitter @safecosmetics.