If you’re like most people, you have a usual monthly or periodic visit to the hair salon, and who doesn’t love the feeling of a new hair cut or hair do? BUT, unfortunately that new hair style may come at a cost to your health as most hair salons are major hubs for a number of toxic chemicals.
One salon treatment—the Brazilian Blowout hair straightening treatment—can be so toxic that it continues to expose customers and salon workers to toxic fumes for months after it is done. Brazilian Blowout and other straightening products contain formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen. And exposure to formaldehyde doesn’t end with the treatment—the fumes are reactivated every time heat is applied to the hair! This is so bad that the California Superior Court ordered GIB, the makers of the Brazilian Blowout, to stop selling its product in California after finding that it emits smog-forming pollutants at levels higher than allowed by the California Air Resources Board!! GIB was asked to present a new, reformulated product to meet California Air Quality Standards.
Hair Dyes and Extensions
Hair dyes contain quaternium-15, which is a formaldehyde-releaser, para-phenylenediamine (PPD), which may be carcinogenic, and alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), potential hormone disruptors. PPD, in about two-thirds of conventional hair dyes in the U.S., has actually been banned for use in hair dye products in Germany, France, and Sweden. Exposure to PPD can cause allergic reactions ranging from skin irritation to, in the case of a teenager in 2010, death from anaphylactic shock. And an ingredient analysis by the Environmental Working Group found that many conventional hair dyes include known carcinogens due to ingredients derived from coal tar. All of this is no good – a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology stated, “Several studies suggest that toxic chemicals in hair products may be absorbed through the scalp in sufficient amounts to increase the risks of adverse health effects in women.”
Even hair extensions can be a cause for concern! Many adhesives used on extensions may contain 1-4 dioxane, which is listed as a probable carcinogen by the U.S. EPA, and styrene, a neurotoxin and suspected endocrine disruptor.
And in addition to customers receiving treatments, salon workers may be most at risk, as they are exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis for long periods of time. A 2009 report from the University of Santiago de Compostela reviewed studies examining the risk of cancer among hairdressers and related workers. They reported that the 247 studies showed these workers having a higher risk of cancer than the general population.
What you can do: Look for a green salon that uses natural hair color treatments free from synthetic chemicals, ammonia, or PPD (see resources below). You can also
order your own from EcoColors, which is a company that sells a permanent non toxic organic hair color system formulated for professional hair stylists that is made from flax and castor oil. And they offer a DIY Home Kit version.
A great organization, Women’s Voices for the Earth, has been instrumental in pushing corporations to be more careful with what they’re putting into their products in the past. For example, they pushed Johnson & Johnson to remove potentially dangerous chemicals like phthalates from their products by 2015. And now they’ve issued a new report that seeks to increase awareness of the potential risks to your health when you walk in the door of the hair salon to get your hair colored or straightened. They created this handy fact sheet that provides a list of harmful chemicals to avoid. I suggest downloading it and printing it out to take to your salon to see if any of the chemicals listed are in the products your stylist is using. If so, you can talk to them about potentially changing to safer alternatives. And of course, please share this information with them too because they are the most exposed to these toxic chemicals.
Quick Tips to Reduce Your Exposure at the Hair Salon
It’s not always easy to reduce your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals in hair products. Here are some tips to help you:
- Start a conversation. Talk to your stylist about the fact sheet from Women’s Voices for the Earth. Find out which products may have the greatest health risks for you, and ask if the salon provides alternatives.
- Go beyond ingredients labels. Though you can find chemicals listed on the product’s ingredient label, not all of them will be there. Fragrances, for instance, often contain a number of unknown chemicals. Ask your stylist to consult with the Safety Data Sheets that usually come with the products, or perhaps to call the manufacturers for more information.
- Take a sniff of the salon air. How does the salon smell? You can tell a lot by the aroma. A highly chemical smell may indicate that the ventilation isn’t the best. Good ventilation is key, especially when dealing with nail polish and hair dyes. Choose those salons that smell more like fresh air.
- Go to fewer appointments. When we’re talking about toxic chemicals, it’s all about cumulative exposure. Do you really need to color your hair every six weeks? Ask your stylist if there may be other options for those in between times, so you can wait a little longer.
- Take good care of your hair. The healthier your hair, the longer you’ll preserve your color. Consider investing in toxin-free color-saving products that support the health of your hair and help your color last longer. And go without a wash when you can.
- Consider less permanent options. The more permanent a hair color, the more toxic it is. Try semi-permanent and temporary colors to see if they may work for what you need. You could even potentially use these in between your permanent hair coloring appointments.
- Dye only part of it. You may be just as happy with a few highlights or lowlights as you would with an all-over color, and you will cut back on your toxic exposure. In addition, these types of treatments usually don’t come in contact with your scalp as much as all-over color. Try not to get whole head and highlights on the same visit—that doubles your chemical dose.
- Look for safe salons. In response to customer demand and because of concern for the health and safety of their workers, many salons are turning to less toxic options. Ecocolors, hybrid and European brands often contain fewer chemicals and are used by these select salons. Try to find these salons if you can and if you need to, try telling your stylist that you suffer from chemical sensitivity and find out if he or she can accommodate your needs.
- Try natural hair dyes. There are some out there that are less toxic that may work for you. If you’re dying your hair at home, try Aubrey Organics, pure Henna, or Naturtint – these still contain some chemicals but are much safer options.
- Try herbal solutions. If you’re super sensitive and want to try all-natural hair coloring, consider making your own herbal/food infusions at home. Brunettes can enrich their color by rinsing with teas made from rosemary, sage, raspberry leaves, parsley, or catnip, by rinsing with coffee or black tea, or by using an infusion of apple cider vinegar, rosemary, and coffee. Blondes can try rinses made from saffron, turmeric, calendula or infusions made of oat straw (Avena sativa), licorice root, and saffron. Redheads can try rinses made of cool, strong black coffee, or teas made with rosehips, red hibiscus, calendula or saffron. The Environmental Working Group suggests adding vitamin E, wheat germ oil, or avocado oil to help condition your hair at the same time.