Scared Stiff: Brazilian Hair Straightening Can Be Deadly

Andressa is a perky traveling beautician who specializes in Brazilian hair straightening. Sure, she uses formaldehyde -- found in embalming fluid -- to make curls straight as straw. And, yeah, inhaling the stuff causes nasal cancer in rats, but she's good at calming skittish new clients. "The fumes actually smell really good," she assures. "It only hurts your eyes a little." In Miami-Dade, Andressa makes most of her trips to the homes of Hispanic and Jewish women. Her regulars pay about $150, just a fraction of what it costs professionally. She calls the procedure "Brazilian keratin treatment."

The only problem: It's illegal outside the walls of a salon. It also poses potentially serious health risks. In March 2007, a 33-year-old woman from Brazil died after leaving the treatment on her scalp for four days.

In the past month, "stylists" have posted 14 ads for the service on the South Florida section of Craigslist. They offer to perform it in kitchens and sell packages of the formula from their garages. A woman named Nancy, for example, sold the formula from her home near Metrozoo. Her online ad promised "dramatic results." (Contacted by Riptide, she claimed it was "for a church fundraiser" and then hung up.)

Even in salons, the procedure makes going to the dentist sound like fun. It takes up to three hours and involves heating hair to 450 degrees. Some beauticians wear facemasks and charge from $250 to $700. The chemical "restructures" bonds of the hair to form soft, frizz-free locks for up to 12 weeks. It doesn't work without the formaldehyde.

No government agency monitors formaldehyde levels in cosmetics. "There are no limits," says Stephanie Kwisnek of the FDA press office. A panel called the Cosmetic Ingredient Review recommends no more than 0.2 percent.

Tracy Kollmer, a spokesperson for the Delray Beach-based Brazilian Keratin Treatment, points out there are a lot of copycat formulas. Customers need not worry about "botched treatments" when it's done by a licensed cosmetologist, she says, but she declined to comment about how much formaldehyde is in the trademarked brand.

In search of someone less cagey, Riptide phoned Andressa one last time. Our request: Douse us in a bath of formaldehyde -- as much as humanly possible. "Don't worry," she assured. "I can always add more depending on your hair." Well, that's a relief.