“When we held focus groups with salon workers, we found these stories of lack of education on chemical exposures and chemical-related health problems,” Adewumi says. “Even though they had all gone to beauty school, there was just really no training around what these products could do to your body and to your reproductive system.”
“A salon worker is never exposed to just one chemical at a time.”
That’s partly because there’s precious little research on the long-term health effects of salon products. Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research at the environmental organization Women's Voices for the Earth, explains: “The weakness in the data is being able to connect [health impacts] to specific chemicals, because those connections are almost never studied.” And so far, research has failed to account for the combination of toxic chemicals found in hair salons. “They’ll look at a chemical at a time, but of course a salon worker is never exposed to just one chemical at a time,” Scranton says.
In the absence of comprehensive longitudinal data, assessing the health risks of specific products is “an art as much as a science,” Scranton says. Her organization singles out chemicals of concern by drawing on watch lists created by governmental authorities—California and Washington state have them, along with the European Union—and recommends safer alternatives where available.
The case of Brazilian Blowout offers a window into federal regulation of the beauty industry. This professional hair-smoothing product contains formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, which is released into the air when hair treated with the solution is heated with a blow dryer and flat iron.
In 2011, OSHA issued a hazard alert about formaldehyde exposure from Brazilian Blowout, and the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning letter to the company, citing the product’s health risks and misleading “Formaldehyde Free” label. But the agency had no power to recall the product, even though it had been linked to “adverse events” including eye, respiratory, and nervous-system disorders. It was only after the state of California sued the makers of Brazilian Blowout that they modified its formula, reducing but not eliminating the formaldehyde content. Without mandatory recall authority, the federal government could do little more than send strongly worded letters.
The FDA regulates cosmetics in the United States, but it doesn’t approve products before they hit the shelves. It also doesn’t require manufacturers to list the ingredients of professional salon products. That means that, on the label, the word “fragrance” may stand in for hundreds of unreported chemicals. “The burden is on us as consumers or us as researchers to test these products,” Adewumi says. That’s the reverse of the regulatory protocol in Europe, where cosmetic products must undergo scientific safety assessment before they can be sold. In the United States, companies can ask for forgiveness rather than permission, letting potentially hazardous products slip through the cracks.