by Sarah Tarver-Wahlquist
When clients walk into New York City’s Swing Salon, they may be surprised by what they don’t smell—the range of chemicals usually wafting around hair salons. That’s because the owners have decided to use only natural and organic products.
While many people may assume that all salon hair and body treatments are regulated and safe, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no authority to require companies to test cosmetic products for safety, due to loopholes in the Toxic Substances Control Act. So, people are being exposed to dangerous toxins through salon products like nail polish, hair color processors and hair straighteners.
Be aware that while labels of over-the-counter body care products are required by law to list ingredients, with the exception of the chemical soup often hidden under the term “fragrance,” the loophole for salon products is large. Jamie Silberberger, with the Women’s
Voices for the Earth’s National Healthy Nail & Beauty Salon Alliance, reports, “Products sold for professional use in spas and salons are not required to be labeled with ingredients.”
Fortunately, healthy alternatives are available, either by patronizing a green salon or using natural beauty treatments at home.
One salon treatment—Brazilian Blowout hair straightening—can continue to expose customers and salon workers to toxic fumes even months after application. It’s among the conventional straightening products that contain formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen.
“Exposure to formaldehyde doesn’t end with the treatment—the fumes are reactivated every time heat is applied to the hair,” says Jennifer Arce, a San Diego, California, salon worker who became sick after applying a single Brazilian Blowout treatment. “So, when a client who’s had a Brazilian Blowout done elsewhere comes into the salon to get a haircut or color and has her hair blow-dried, flat-ironed, curled or processed under the hood dryer, the fumes that come out of her hair make me and several of my coworkers sick all over again.”
Solution: Avoid chemical hairstraightening treatments. Sign on to the Women’s Voice for the Earth letter campaign petitioning the FDA to remove Brazilian Blowout from U.S. shelves by visiting Tinyurl.com/ BanBrazilianBlowout.
Hair Dyes and Extensions
About two-thirds of conventional hair dyes in the U.S. contain paraphenylenediamine (PPD), a chemical banned for use in such products in Germany, France and Sweden. Exposure to PPD can cause allergic reactions ranging from skin irritation to death by anaphylactic shock, which happened to a teenager in 2010.
When Spain’s University of Santiago de Compostela researchers conducted a metastudy examining the risk of cancer among hairdressers and related workers, all reported that employees had a higher risk of cancer than the general population.
Hair extensions also warrant attention. Many adhesives used on extensions may contain 1,4 dioxane, listed as a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and styrene, a neurotoxin and suspected endocrine disruptor.
Solution: Look for a clean, green salon that uses natural hair color treatments free from synthetic chemicals, ammonia or PPD. Individuals can also order nontoxic organic color kits direct from EcoColors.net.
When getting a manicure or pedicure, beware of the toxic trio of dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde and toluene. Used to help nail products hold color, they’re linked to reproductive and development problems, plus dizziness and eye and lung irritation, according to the Environmental Working Group.
Facing pressure from consumer groups and salon workers, some polish companies are now producing socalled “nontoxic” nail polish, although their labels aren’t verifiable. California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control recently tested 25 nail polishes sold to salons, 12 of which claimed to be toluene-free, including seven said to be free of the toxic trio. The researchers found toluene in 10 of those, and one or more of the three ingredients in five out of the seven.
Solution: Customers should bring their own safe nail polish and only patronize well-ventilated salons.
Find a Green Salon
Many conventional body products like shampoos and massage oils contain a litany of ingredients that add to our chemical exposure. Ask questions to ensure all of a salon’s products are non-toxic or as low in toxicity as possible.
For example, a large network of independently owned “concept salons” across America are connected with the Aveda Corporation (Aveda.com), a national leader in developing hair and body products that are free from the most dangerous ingredients. More than 90 percent of Aveda’s essential oils and 89 percent of its raw herbal ingredients are certified organic.
Also look for members of the Green Spa Network, a nationwide coalition of spas that pledge to be energy efficient and sustainable in all of their practices (GreenSpaNetwork.org).
If a green salon hasn’t yet arrived locally, bring nontoxic products for appointments and ask the stylist to use them. Visit the Skin Deep Database at ewg.org/skindeep to find the least-toxic products for at-home use.
Sarah Tarver-Wahlquist is a freelance writer in Tucson, Arizona.