Beauty can be painful: just ask anyone who’s ever sat in a salon getting their scalp seared with straightener or their fingers soaked in noxious chemicals. But the problems aren’t just skin deep; the glamor of the cosmetics industry hides many underlying health hazards.
The materials used in salon treatments like perms and manicures are as dangerous as any industrial chemical. But unlike industrial workplaces where protective equipment is often the norm, at salons personal image and comfort are paramount. So regulation remains a gray area, consumers ignore those ugly fumes, and yet for workers who labor all day in these shops, practically every breath may carry toxic risks.
Although the exact degree of risk salon workers face is unclear and varies across workplaces, a report by the advocacy group Women’s Voices for the Earth highlights troubling research findings. For example, “[s]ome surveys found that over 60 percent of salon workers suffer from skin conditions, such as dermatitis, on their hands,” and other studies have detected links between exposure to salon chemicals—in nail polish, hair straighteners and related products—to respiratory irritation, immune or neurological problems, or even birth defects. Some chemicals in popular hair care products are associated with cancer risk, such as formaldehyde gas (a byproduct of the hair treatment Brazilian Blowout), which “can be released from hair straighteners and flat iron sprays when used with high heat.”
Much of the research is preliminary and inconclusive; WVE points out that some studies have not shown significant risks. But anecdotal evidence confirms patterns of harm, according to the report’s author, WVE Director of Science and Research Alexandra Scranton. Though more research must be done, she tells The Nation via e-mail, “for some of the more acute effects (dermatitis and breathing problems particularly) there are several studies [observing] the salon workers symptoms would improve significantly when they were away from the workplace—indicating that it was likely to be salon exposures causing these effects rather than other factors.”
In a survey of Vietnamese-American salon workers in Southern California, a worker described the body burdens she faces every day at work: “Working in the nail profession, my nose has allergies to the chemicals in the nail products. Just sitting down to do nails, my nose hurts and my head hurts so much that I can’t bear it.”