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After an exposé on nail salons, the health risks of working in a hair salon are also coming to light. Stylists may be at risk of chronic lung diseases, skin conditions and even cancer. What can be done to better regulate products and practices?
In the wake of the viral New York Times report exposing the deplorable working conditions of nail salon workers in New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) immediately introduced two emergency measures in the New York State Legislature that would make it more difficult to mistreat nail technicians. In particular, one measure would require workers to wear respirators, protective goggles, and special gloves in nail salons, in response to the serious health problems that many workers face. But while the New York Times series focused on the health risks of extended exposure to nail products, hair salons pose their own share of similar health risks.
From head to toe, hair salon workers are at risk for adverse health outcomes. Constant handling of chemicals during the hair shampooing process — classified as “wet work” because the hands remain wet or moist for a long period of time — can reduce the skin’s natural barrier and allow greater absorption of chemicals. A 1998 study found that hairdressers have skin conditions like dermatitis, eczema, and rashes, at two to three times the rate of people in other occupations. Other chemicals used to dye, bleach, and treat also can cause skin conditions. A 2000 American Journal of Epidemiology study found that hairdressers are four times more likely to be diagnosed with a chronic lung disease known as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, while a 1997 Finnish Institute of Occupational Health study found that they were four times more likely to suffer from chronic bronchitis when compared with supermarket saleswomen.
In 2010, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) found that “occupational exposures as a hairdresser or barber are probably carcinogenic to humans.” That followed a 2001 study, which found that permanent hair dye was linked to an increased risk for bladder cancer in U.S. women. And from the present into the future, hair salon workers are at greater risk of miscarriage or giving birth to babies with cleft palates. They are also more at risk of dying from the three neurological conditions: Alzheimers’s disease, presenile dementia, and motor neuron disease.
The risks of hair salons are exacerbated among women of color, both because of a chemical industry geared at women with “ethnic hair” and because of the importance of hair in African American culture. A forthcoming report by the advocacy group Black Women for Wellness found that African American women spend more than $9 billion on hair care, in part due to a culture “that is layered with stereotypes, personal expression and history that influences how, where, and what we style our hair with.”
Black women are told by society that their hair has to be a certain way.
“For the black community, if we’re looking at hair relaxers, even knowing that these are linked to uterine fibroids, when it comes to culture and economics, black women are told by society that their hair has to be a certain way, and we see this especially in workplaces where they are not allowed to wear their hair in a natural state,” Teni Adewumi, the Environmental Justice Research Coordinator at Black Women for Wellness, explained to ThinkProgress. “When you talk to women, they’ll say that ‘society won’t want my hair to look like this.’ Women go to work and hear their bosses say, ‘you have braids,’ or ‘your hair is in its natural state.’ It’s that we encounter these situations where it’s uncomfortable.”