How Safe Is That Salon Procedure?

Could that day of beauty bring on breathing problems, scarring, even skin cancer? Health investigates the new risks at salons and day spas.

Jenny Van Sommers
When Alexandra Spunt went for a keratin hair treatment at a Los Angeles salon two years ago, she hoped to walk out with two months' worth of silky-straight locks. What she didnt expect: two hours of burning eyes and a sore throat. "The stylist offered me goggles because my eyes stung and I couldnt stop coughing," says Spunt, 32. She was shocked to learn that the treatment likely contained formaldehyde—deemed a possible human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Youve heard that pedicure tubs are teeming with fungus. And you probably know that your waxer shouldnt double-dip. But new dangers have been popping up at salons, and its hard for clients, regulators, and even salon owners to keep up. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a limited ability to regulate cosmetic ingredients, says Claudia Polsky, a deputy attorney general in Californias Environment Law section. For instance, "the FDA cannot require ingredient labeling on products intended for salon use only," she says. And theres no federal body overseeing the safety of salons, or how well-trained employees are. That means its up to you to get informed. Heres what you need to know to stay safe.

Great hair can be dangerous
Walk into a salon offering a keratin treatment, and you may see stylists in masks with fans pointed their way. And with good reason: Formaldehyde has been IDd as the key active ingredient in many hair-straightening treatments currently offered in salons. Recently, Oregons Occupational Health and Safety Administration found the chemical in samples of nine different products—one of which was actually labeled "formaldehyde-free."

Some epidemiological studies have linked exposure to formaldehyde over several months with certain forms of cancer, such as leukemia. In the short term, it can cause scalp rashes when it comes into contact with the head; when inhaled (whether youre receiving the treatment or sitting next to someone who is), it can lead to burning eyes, nose, and throat, and even asthma attacks if youre prone to them, says Julia Quint, PhD, a retired toxicologist from the California Department of Public Health. While it may be possible to get a safe keratin treatment if the salon is properly ventilated, "were advising that consumers steer clear altogether," says environmental scientist Alexandra Gorman Scranton, who directs science and research for Womens Voices for the Earth, a nonprofit organization that works to eliminate toxic chemicals that have an impact on womens health. "Formaldehyde sensitivity can vary from person to person, but you wont know you have a problem with it until you get sick."

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Virginia Sole-Smith
Last Updated: March 09, 2011

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