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OSHA Issues Hazard Alert to Hair Salons on Hair Smoothing & Straightening Products

This is perhaps a timely news release, as I was in the middle of working on a new post about my experience with keratin hair treatments. I’ll elaborate further about my experience soon, but I found this news release to be quite interesting.

Yesterday the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a hazard alert to hair salon owners and workers about potential formaldehyde exposure from working with some hair smoothing and straightening products.

Before getting any of my keratin treatments, I remember finding research indicating several of the in-salon keratin treatment services would or could involve formaldehyde exposure. I also found a couple of supposedly formaldehyde-free options.

Federal OSHA found formaldehyde in the air when stylists used hair smoothing products, some of which do not have formaldehyde listed on their labels or in material safety data sheets as required by law. During one investigation, the agency’s air tests showed formaldehyde at levels greater than OSHA’s limits for a salon, even though the product tested was labeled as formaldehyde-free. California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently issued violations to an importer and distributer of smoothing products labeled formaldehyde-free for failing to list formaldehyde as a hazardous ingredient on the company’s product labels and in the material safety data sheets.

I haven’t delved deeper to discover who the importer or distrubuter of this product was (or for that matter, what the product actually was) – not yet, anyway.

So yea, formaldehyde is nasty. It presents a health hazard if workers are exposed – irritating the eyes and nose; causing allergic reactions of the skin, eyes and lungs; and it’s linked to nose and lung cancer.

OSHA requires manufacturers, importers and distributors of products containing formaldehyde (as a gas or in solution) or that can release formaldehyde during use to include information about formaldehyde and its hazards on product labels and in the material safety data sheets that are sent to employers. And seriously – if I’m working with it, I have a Right To Know (capitalilzed because that’s actually the OSHA regulation, but the theory stands).

As someone who has worked in the chemical industry for a long time, I can relate to the majority of the public being somewhat chemophobic (having a fear of chemicals). And I will openly admit that I usually scoff at the majority of chemophobic claims – hell, even water is hazardous…doesn’t mean we shoud avoid it! However, this issues here appear to be 1-the presence of formaldehyde – I’ve dealt with some nasty chemicals in my day and I still don’t think I’d want to work with the stuff, and 2- a manufacturer clearly misrepresenting a product’s composition, and as a consequence, exposing salon employees to a hazardous chemical environment. As salon customers, we can argue that we don’t want to be exposed either, but we’re not the ones being exposed every day. “Workers have the right to know the risks associated with the chemicals with which they work, and how to protect themselves,” said federal OSHA Assistant Secretary Dr. David Michaels. “Employers need to know these risks in order to ensure the safety and health of their employees.”

An OSHA formaldehyde standard must be followed if a salon owner decides to use a formaldehyde-containing hair smoothing product (sure, it’s entirely acceptable, if the salon decides to take the risk). Requirements of this standard include conducting air monitoring, installing ventilation where needed and training workers about formaldehyde.  It also mandates providing protective equipment such as gloves, chemical splash goggles, face shields and chemical resistant aprons.

OSHA currently has a number of ongoing investigations at salons and of importer, distributors, and manufacturers relating to hair smoothing and straightening products, and some citations have been issued.

I just want to add a little sidebar to this information… in doing some background reading on this, I found a lot of instances where people were very concerned (and yes, chemophobic!) about products containing “aldehyde”, thinking it was a misleading, substitute term for formaldehyde in a product. While I know often “generic” terms are used for components in a product formulation, it’s usually done to preserve trade secrecy, not to deceive the customer (in the cases stated above, absolutely no mention of formaldehyde was made – that’s deception). Seeing the term, “aldehyde” on a label does not automatically mean formaldehyde. And it doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to kill you. An aldehyde is a family of organic (think chemistry here, kids – organic means carbon-containing, not “natural” like organic produce) compounds. Let’s leave the details at that. Formaldehyde is the most basic aldehyde, but there are tons of other aldehydes in this family of compounds. Take butyraldehyde (beau-ter-ald-a-hide), for example. It’s an aldehyde. It could possibly be referred to in a product composition as, “aldehyde”. And while it can be synthetically produced, it also occurs in nature. I’m not saying, “It’s safe, go drink it!”,  as with most chemicals, it will cause some sort or irritation upon repeated exposure, but compared to the health hazards of formaldehyde, it (or some other similar chemicals) could perhaps be an acceptable replacement in a formulation. Formaldehyde = bad, but not all chemicals are. Ok end of my sidebar.

In doing a little bit more reading, I came across an article by the Environmental Working Group: Flat Out Risky – Hair Straightener Makers and Salons Cover Up Dangers.  It provides a nice summary of different straightening or smoothing options and the associated hazards.  That article got me to thinking – I’ve had two keratin treatments in the last two years.  Any chemicals I may have been exposed to in those treatments are probably minuscule compared to chemical exposure I suffered perming every six months back in my teenage years.

Anyway, I’m still working on my own keratin experiences… more on that to come…


About Joanne

We're not beauty product experts, but we love to do research!


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