Sandy Guest, 55, hairdresser
Sandy Guest with her daughter, Adrianne Matheney, while shopping for a wedding dress. Guest, a hairdresser, died of leukemia in 2013 after handling formaldehyde-laced haircare products. Courtesy of Adrianne Matheney.
Sandy Guest “loved doing hair,” her daughter says.
Guest worked at salons in Southern California, mostly Orange County. “She always said that she loved making people feel great, that it wasn’t work for her,” said Guest’s daughter, Adrianne Matheney.
Most of the time, Guest bought her supplies from the salon owners. Among those products was a hair-straightening line called Brazilian Blowout.
Brazilian Blowout, as it happened, was loaded with formaldehyde, a carcinogen. Separate investigations by Oregon and California officials found the chemical “well above regulated levels” in the product, despite owner GIB LLC’s claims that it was formaldehyde-free.
Guest knew none of this when she used it on customers’ hair. Described by her daughter as a “workhorse” who regularly put in 12- to 14-hour days, she grew pale and tired in 2011. She was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, a condition also known as pre-leukemia. After chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, she developed acute myelogenous leukemia.
“Getting the bone marrow transplant — that’s what knocked her down. That was horrific,” said Matheney, of San Clemente. “It was terribly painful.”
Guest died at 55 on April 16, 2013.
A variety of salon products can be hazardous, according to a November report from environmental-health group Women’s Voices for the Earth. Ingredients in haircare and nail supplies have been linked to cancer, respiratory problems, birth defects and other health ailments, the report said. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has also cautioned workers about beauty-industry chemical exposures.
Guest’s lawyer, Kimberly Miller, has had several other clients who worked in salons and developed cancer. (Guest sued a variety of product manufacturers a year before her death; Miller said she could not discuss the case’s resolution.)
The packaging of beauty supplies, of the sort Guest used, is “intended to obscure the potent chemicals and carcinogens that can be found in some products,” Miller said.
Brazilian Blowout is among the most high-profile because it was popular and specifically advertised as having no formaldehyde. Warnings about it mounted from state and federal officials after stylists complained of nosebleeds, respiratory problems and other symptoms. A California attorney general’s settlement with GIB in 2012 required the company to pay $600,000, alert consumers about the risks and cease “deceptive advertising” of Brazilian Blowout Acai Smoothing Solution and Brazilian Blowout Professional Smoothing Solution “as formaldehyde-free and safe.”
GIB — which does business as Brazilian Blowout — pushed back against regulators at first. When the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division announced its testing results in 2010, GIB insisted in a statement that its products were formaldehyde-free and said “there is no reason to believe that the formulation tested” was actually Brazilian Blowout. The company filed, and later dropped, a lawsuit against the state.
GIB did not respond to requests for comment. But in 2012, after the settlement with California, CEO Michael Brady told The New York Times that Brazilian Blowout is safe if properly used in an area with good ventilation.
“We just want people to treat it like they do aspirin — make sure you only use it as directed,” he said.
Many hair salons don’t have the ventilation systems they would need to work with formaldehyde-emitting products, warned the lead author of a 2013 University of California, Berkeley, study that measured Brazilian Blowout exposure levels.
Brazilian Blowout remains on the market. There’s now a “Zero+” formulation the company advertises as having “0% Formaldehyde released before, during or after the treatment”; another option is “Brazilian Blowout Original.”
Matheney said she was “angry and shocked” to learn that the product might have sickened her mother, with whom she was very close.
“Mom said if she had known [the risks], she never would have used those products,” Matheney said. “Here she was, trying to make other people feel beautiful, and this is what happens.”