Straight Talk

Women spend thousands of dollars a year to achieve smooth, silky hair. But are the chemicals used in those treatments safe?

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Several times a month, hairstylist Heather Fritz leads a client past Salon Nader’s row of sleek styling chairs and into a back hallway. She closes the door to the Bethesda salon, then cracks open another door, letting fresh air into the hallway. She turns on two fans as her client sits in a salon chair that has been placed there and drapes her with a black cape.

Next, Fritz puts on goggles. She offers her client a pair, too, as well as a mask to cover her nose. Only then is Fritz ready to apply one of the hair smoothing treatments that transform wavy, frizzy hair into smooth, silky tresses—treatments that have become wildly popular in salons across the country.

Fritz takes these precautions because fumes emitted during the treatment have sometimes caused clients to cough and their eyes to tear up, though Fritz says the fumes don’t bother her. Other clients have complained about the odor of the chemicals, as well, so salon owner Nader Lofti now has the treatments applied in the hallway.

“My clients are educated people. They have done their reading and want to do this treatment. But sometimes they still ask me, ‘Is this good for you?’ ” says Fritz, a petite woman who has worked at Salon Nader for seven years and in the hair industry for 30 years. “I say, ‘You have to make up your own mind about these things.’ ”

Women in the Bethesda area spend thousands of dollars each year to have chemicals—from smoothing treatments to dye—applied to their hair in the name of beauty.

Though research suggests that these chemicals are safe if applied properly, their odors and the physical reactions they cause still leave some customers and stylists wondering about health problems arising from long-term use.

“If you think about all the chemicals and the constant particles that are airborne, I get concerned,” says Bethesda resident Andrea Kessler, whose husband, Bruce Marks, owns the salon Last Tangle in Washington, D.C. “I do a lot of research to try to help Bruce find the safest products, but it isn’t always that easy to get accurate information from the [salon product manufacturers].”

Hair smoothing treatments—including the popular Brazilian Blowout—cause the greatest concern among salon owners and their clients. The vapors that can trigger watering eyes are caused by the chemical methylene glycol, which releases formaldehyde when combined with heat during the smoothing treatment. Formaldehyde is a key component in many smoothers because it helps seal the protein keratin into hair, smoothing cracks and damage in follicles and giving locks a shiny, smooth effect that lasts for about 60 washes, or roughly two months.

Formaldehyde is produced in trace amounts by humans when we breathe. It’s normally present in air indoors and out at low levels, usually less than 0.03 parts per million (ppm), according to the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute (NCI).

In elevated concentrations, the chemical is an effective disinfectant and preservative that’s widely used in medical laboratories and in manufacturing automobiles, building products, household products, textiles and wood products.

When formaldehyde in the air measures above 0.1 ppm, the chemical produces a pungent odor that can cause eye, nose and throat irritation and aggravate allergy and asthma symptoms, says the National Cancer Institute. Some people also become nauseated and dizzy.

Breathing high concentrations of formaldehyde over extended periods has been shown to cause nose and throat cancer in rats, and may cause leukemia in humans, the NCI says. The chemical is classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

To ensure that formaldehyde concentrations remain at safe levels, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency responsible for the enforcement of safety and health laws in the workplace, has set a ceiling of 0.75 ppm over an average eight-hour period.

Until 2011, one company that made smoothing treatments labeled its product “formaldehyde-free,” and others made no mention of the chemical in their products, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental health and advocacy organization. But after testing the air in salons across the country, OSHA found elevated levels of the chemical in salons using the treatments.

In April 2011, the agency issued a warning to hairstylists and salon owners that the fumes released during the treatments could reach unsafe levels for stylists in salons that aren’t properly ventilated.

An October 2011 report by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, a D.C.-based cosmetics safety standards organization, concluded that methylene glycol concentrations in smoothing treatments used in salons across the country were releasing formaldehyde gas at levels that were “2.5 fold to 5.7 fold” beyond what was considered safe by the American Conference of Government Industrial Hygienists and were “unsafe under present conditions of use.”

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