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School of Public Health
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School of Public Health


Health Concerns for Cosmetologists

Approximately 30% of the nearly 3,000 chemicals used in cosmetology are classified as toxic substances by the United States government. In addition, many studies throughout the past 20 years have shown a high worker turnover rate in cosmetology worker due to occupational allergies and health problems. A study by Hollund et al. (2003) reported about 40% of cosmetology study participants had left the occupation due to an occupational allergy or health problem. In addition, Leino et al. (1999) reported hairdressers were 3.5 times more likely to leave the profession due to asthma related illness and that occupational elbow, wrist, neck and shoulder strain was associated with reported career changes among cosmetologists.

The following list highlights some of the health risks cosmetologists could face on the job:

  • Exposure to hazardous chemicals
  • Risk of infection
  • Repetitive motion injuries
  • Burns/cuts/scratches
  • Noise
  • Verbal or physical abuse from clients
  • Stress


Accordion Content

Learn more about exposure to hazardous chemicals (as summarized from our review of peer-reviewed literature as of spring 2012):

  • Acute and Chronic Health Effects of Chemicals

    Many products cosmetologists use on a daily basis contain chemicals potentially producing acute and chronic health effects after exposure in salons. Review the table below to find out more information.

    Chemical/Product Found in... Acute Health Effects Chronic Health Effects
    acetone nail polish remover skin, eye, nose, and throat irritation, coughing and wheezing, headache, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, lightheadedness, passing out severe drying and cracking of skin, adverse liver and kidney affects
    ammonia permanent hair color, permanent wave preparations can severely irritate and burn skin and eyes with possible eye damage, nose and throat irritation with coughing and wheezing, can irritate lungs causing difficulty when breathing; higher exposures can cause fluid buildup in lungs; contact with liquid can cause frostbite repeated exposure can lead to an asthma like allergic response; can cause permanent lung damage
    dibutyl phthalate nail polish skin, eye, nose, and throat irritation, headache, dizziness, nausea, seizures may be a teratogen, may damage developing fetus and testes, may also affect nervous system and kidneys
    ethanol hair fixing agents, hairsprays contact can severely irritate and burn skin and eyes, with permanent eye damage possible; irritation of eyes, nose, throat, mouth and lungs causing coughing and shortness of breath with pulmonary edema possible due to chemical reactions in air, may share similar chronic health effects as other products
    ethyl acetate nail polish, nail polish remover, fingernail glue can irritate skin, eyes, nose, and throat, higher exposures can cause dizziness, lightheadedness, passing out repeated contact can cause drying and cracking of skin, long-term exposure can negatively affect liver and kidneys and may also decrease fertility in males
    formaldehyde Brazilian style keratin-based hair treatments, nail polish, nail hardener contact can severely irritate and burn skin and eyes, including delayed burns, with permanent eye damage possible; irritation of eyes, nose, throat, mouth and lungs causing coughing and shortness of breath with pulmonary edema possible repeated exposure can cause bronchitis and asthma like allergy; can also cause skin allergy; IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) known carcinogen: nasopharynx and leukemia
    hair color (general) permanent hair color para-phenylenediamine (ingredient) – may cause contact allergy, irritant dermatitis – mostly on hands occupational asthma and rhinitis; IARC classifies occupational exposure of hairdressers and barbers to hair dyes as “probably carcinogenic”
    hydrogen peroxide permanent wave preparations, permanent hair color, hair bleaches contact can severely irritate and burn skin and eyes with possible eye damage; nose and throat irritation; lung irritation causing coughing and shortness of breath with possible pulmonary edema; headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting mutagen; can irritate lungs and cause bronchitis; temporary whitening of the skin and stinging sensations, skin rash, redness and blisters
    toluene nail polish, fingernail glue skin, eye, nose, and throat irritation, coughing and wheezing, trouble concentrating, headaches, slowed reflexes, higher exposures can cause dizziness, lightheadedness, passing out may be a teratogen, may damage developing fetus, repeated exposure can cause drying and cracking of skin with redness and a skin rash, liver, kidney, and brain damage
  • Safety Data Sheets (SDS) tell you about the chemicals in the products you use in the salon and how to protect yourself. These were formerly known as Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), until OSHA recently changed the name to Safety Data Sheets as part of the updated Hazard Communication Standard (phased in spring 2012 through 2016). They will present essentially the same information but the new format may make it easier for you to compare products.

    Your employer must have an SDS for each product you use and must keep it where you can read it. Your employer can get SDS’s from chemical suppliers.

    Health Canada has compiled a very interesting Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist which lists prohibited and restricted cosmetic ingredients in Canada due to health and safety concerns. It is important to familiarize yourself with the chemicals of potential concern in your industry to be ready to protect yourself, your coworkers and clients from potential exposures (risks to health).

    To learn more about specific chemicals, visit the NJ Right to Know website to see available hazardous substance fact sheets. Below is a list of salon products and the chemicals contained in them which will make searching for hazardous substance fact sheets (SDS) easier.

    Hair bleaches
    hydrogen peroxide, sodium peroxide, ammonium hydroxide, persulfate salts

    Oxidative hair color (permanent)
    Primary intermediates: arylamines, such as para-phenylenediamine (PPD), para-toluenediamine (PTD) and other substituted para-diamines, ortho- or para-aminophenols. PPD is especially present in higher levels in brown and darker hair dyes and has been detected even when not indicated as an ingredient.

    Couplers: these include meta-substituted arylamines or their derivatives such as m-phenylene-diamines, m-aminophenols, resorcinol or others.

    Oxidants: hydrogen peroxide, urea peroxide, sodium percarbonate or perborate.

    Alkalinizing agents: ammonia, monoethanolamine or aminomethylpropanol.

    Direct dyes (temporary or semi-permanent)
    Temporary coloring agents include azo-, triphenylmethane-, anthraquinone- or indamine dyes, whereas semi-permanent coloring agents contain nitro-phenylenediamines, nitro-aminophenols and some azo dyes.

    Permanent wave preparations
    ammonium thioglycolate, ammonia, hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, bromates, sodium hydroxide, boric acid, glycerol monothioglycolate

    Hair fixing agents/hairsprays
    ethanol, ammonium thioglycolate, isopropanol, various propellants: propane, pentane, butane and diethylether

    Nail products
    acetone, acetonitrile, butyl acetate, dibutyl phthalate, ethyl acetate, ethyl methacrylate, formaldehyde, isopropyl acetate, methacrylic acid, methyl methacrylate, quaternary ammonium compounds, toluene

    Click here for a Guide to Chemical Exposures in the Nail Salon from the California Department of Public Health.

    Brazilian style keratin-based hair treatments
    For an informative Q&A about the Brazilian Blowout and other hair smoothing treatments from the California Department of Public Health, click here .

    In response to concerns at salons, Oregon OSHA conducted air sampling at salons using the Brazilian Blowout products. For more information about a recent report by Oregon OSHA, please click here to access the complete report . Employees had been complaining about difficulty breathing, nose bleeds, and eye irritation when using the hair smoothing product.  

    Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde Releasing Preservatives
    For information about hair products containing formaldehyde, click here

    Formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasing preservatives prevent bacteria from growing in water based products. Other names include: formol, formalin, methanal, morbidic acid, formic aldehyde, methyl aldehyde, oxymethylene and methylene glycol. Formaldehyde may often be found in cosmetics such as shampoos, liquid hand soaps and hair gels. Formaldehyde is also found in nail polish and nail hardeners.

    Formaldehyde releasing preservatives commonly replace formaldehyde and release small amounts over time. These include: Quartinium-15, benzyl hemiformal, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, bioban and DMDM hydantoin.

    People allergic to formaldehyde may also be sensitive to substances releasing it.