Organic salons reject toxic beauty products

'WHOLE NEW BALLGAME': Julie and Terry Craig opened Rapture Salon & Gallery in Brevard to protect the health of clients with all organic products. Photo by Elizabeth Harrison

Tucked away off the main road linking Brevard with Rosman, its diminutive neighbor, Julie and Terry Craig have carved out a niche in organic hair care.

Inside the intricate wrought-iron doors of Rapture Organic Salon & Gallery, clients seeking to avoid the chemicals that pervade many mainstream salons treat themselves to an “eco-chic” spa experience that’s hushed and floral. But for the Craigs, there’s more at stake than just providing a tranquil escape from the stresses of everyday life: They chose to go 100 percent organic for the sake of their own health and well-being.

As it becomes more widely known that chemicals commonly found in beauty products have been linked to serious health problems and that federal regulations provide only limited protection for those most at risk, some Western North Carolina salon owners are taking matters into their own hands.

“When I first got into the business, we were doing crazy stuff,” says Terry. “Nothing about it was natural.”

The Craigs have spent more than two decades in the beauty industry, and both have impressive résumés, with apprenticeships under hair care moguls like Paul Mitchell and Irvine Rusk. The couple traveled the country working as runway and platform artists for Clairol, Toni & Guy, Sebastian and L’Oréal.

“At the time, it was all about beauty,” says Julie. “There were some innovators, but you didn’t hear about them.”

While renting a booth in a Florida salon, however, Julie began suffering from frequent migraines, infections and allergic reactions. She was soon hospitalized and diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder.

The salon, says Julie, had a lot of hair-color clients; she remembers seeing the leftover dye poured down the sink and wondering, “Oh, my God, what’s that doing to our environment?”

So she decided to make a change. “I thought, I can either live with the industry how it is or start another one.”

Making the transition was scary. Julie wasn’t sure her clients would be open to new products, but what happened next floored her. The natural products worked far better: They covered the gray, were true to tone and were less threatening to clients’ health.

Meanwhile, Julie says her own health turned around: She no longer needed antibiotics, and the migraines were gone. “It proved to me it was definitely the environment,” she says.

A largely unregulated industry

According to the Census Bureau, 94,819 U.S. businesses are classified as beauty salons, nail salons or barbershops. In the Asheville area alone, the Yellow Pages lists hundreds of beauty salons.

Nationwide, an estimated 1.2 million people work as hairdressers, hairstylists, cosmetologists, barbers, nail salon employees, and other beauty and personal care workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Except for barbers, who are mostly men, salon workers are predominantly female.

In 1991, researchers at the UNC School of Public Health investigated over 1,000 live births and miscarriages among cosmetologists and other occupations. The results showed that women working full time as cosmetologists had 1.2 times as much risk of miscarriage as women in other jobs; women working in a cosmetology school had 2.3 times the risk.

“Historically, women’s health problems don’t get the attention they need,” says Erin Switalski, executive director of Women’s Voices for the Earth, a national nonprofit working to eliminate toxic chemicals. Women, she maintains, are an invisible population, and their health problems tend to be overlooked and underresearched. Citing the organization’s 2014 report titled “Beauty and Its Beast,” Switalski says the list of conditions linked to toxic beauty products is “pretty astounding: There’s skin conditions, asthma, breathing problems, increased risk of miscarriage, increased risk of different types of cancer and higher risk of depression.”

Researchers have been scrutinizing the health hazards faced by beauty industry workers for more than a decade (the nonprofit’s report cites more than 100 such studies). But it took a recent two-part New York Times series examining the working conditions and health risks faced by nail salon workers to garner national attention.

Officials in New York City and state are now attempting to regulate the nail salon industry more closely, and a pilot program will place air quality sensors in some city salons to assess the risks. But though hair salons involve similar dangers, they’ve largely drawn less scrutiny.

“For most big companies, there are lots of restrictions, but the beauty industry gets a free ride,” Julie Craig asserts. “The beauty industry is mainly interested in the outside look, not the inside.”

Out-of-date laws

Cosmetics are regulated under the 1938 federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Since then, however, “There have been tiny updates but nothing substantial,” says Switalski. “It doesn’t require any kind of pre-product testing to sell anything on the shelf.” Except for color additives, cosmetic products and ingredients don’t require premarket approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Manufacturers have sole legal responsibility for ensuring their products’ safety — and they’re not required to share their safety data with the FDA.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration does require salons to post warnings and take other steps if formaldehyde is detected above certain levels, but it isn’t clear how many actually do that.

In North Carolina, the state Board of Cosmetic Art Examiners requires beauty salons to have material safety data sheets available for all products. But the only chemical prohibited by state law is methyl methacrylate, an organic compound found in resins and plastics that’s been known to cause irritation, respiratory and neurological symptoms in humans, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s mainly used in nail salons.

Against that backdrop, salon workers may be more or less on their own when it comes to safeguarding their health — and they may not even be aware of the limited protections the law does provide.

“I don’t know of any regulations in effect to protect the salon workers, other than to wear gloves and be smart,” says stylist Erin Lind of Ananda Hair Studio in Asheville. “There should probably be more.”

Rebecca Biggers, who owns Lola Salon & Gallery in Asheville, says having a choice in the products she uses was one of the main reasons she opened her own salon 14 years ago. She knew what she wanted to stock on the shelves. Still, Biggers wore a mask at work when she was pregnant.

“It was not about my choice but about protecting my babies,” she says. “When I was two weeks pregnant, I was wearing a mask.” Biggers says the potential health risks are always in the back of her mind, and she seeks out products with fewer side effects.

Lola sells two high-end product lines that are marketed as natural. The Kevin Murphy brand bills its products as sulfate-, paraben- and cruelty-free, while Davines touts sustainable beauty and zero carbon dioxide impact. Overall, the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database considers most Davines products a “moderate hazard.” Yet the database cites Davines Love Lovely Smoothing Shampoo, for example, as having “high concerns” for endocrine disruption; multiple additive exposure sources; contamination concerns; irritation of the skin, eyes or lungs; and occupational hazards. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit uses scientific research to protect the public health.

Cancer-causing chemicals

Although shampoos and dyes may contain chemicals that pose some risk for salon workers, the most dangerous chemicals are those produced when products used for straightening, hair extensions, bleaching and dyeing hair are heated by a blow dryer or flat iron.

“Beauty and Its Beast” includes a list of products that it says have been linked to various health problems, such as asthma and cancer. Toluene, an ingredient in some hair dyes, can cause liver damage, kidney damage, birth defects and pregnancy loss, the list states. Ammonium persulfate, found in hair bleach, causes asthma and dermatitis, according to scientific studies referenced in the report. And styrene, used in hair extension glue, is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” according to the National Toxicology Program, a collaboration involving the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA.

By far the most scrutinized such chemical, however, is formaldehyde, or its byproduct methylene glycol, used in hair-straightening products like the Brazilian Blowout and Keratin Express. “It has been named as a human carcinogen as of 2011,” says Julia Storm, an agromedicine specialist in the toxicology program at N.C. State University, referring to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 12th “Report on Carcinogens.”

“Some studies,” notes Storm, “linked formaldehyde exposure to myeloid leukemia. Others have linked hematopoietic and lymphatic cancers and brain tumors.”

Various government agencies are well aware of the dangers of formaldehyde. The National Toxicology Program lists formaldehyde as “known to be a human carcinogen.” The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has concluded that formaldehyde is “carcinogenic to humans.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s hazardous to your health at all concentrations, particularly with short-term exposure, cautions Pete Newsome, president and founder of PharmAgra Labs in Brevard. The company does research and development for clients in organic and medicinal chemistry.

“I believe that most of these conclusions on carcinogenicity were reached by an epidemiological study of any changes in rates of cancer in selected exposed groups — I presume chronic exposure — versus the general population,” he explains.

Brazilian Blowout

Hair is made of a protein called keratin, Newsome explains, and whether hair is curly or straight is determined by the number and orientation of disulfide bonds in this protein. The first set of chemicals in the straightening process breaks these bonds, while the second set re-forms them in the new configuration. Formaldehyde, one of the chemicals commonly used to re-form the bonds, is released into the air during the initial drying process. The EPA classifies formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen under high or prolonged exposure; consequently, OSHA has defined the maximum concentration a worker can be exposed to formaldehyde during an eight-hour shift. For exposures exceeding certain specified levels, salon owners must take additional measures, such as ongoing air quality monitoring, providing protective gear to employees, installing ventilation systems and offering workers medical exams.

“What I suspect is that having your hair treated with this stuff is not of significant concern, but working in a place that does these 40 hours a week needs some close scrutiny and monitoring for concentration in the air,” says Newsome.

Lind, meanwhile, says Ananda doesn’t offer the Brazilian Blowout, adding that while she’s done only one such treatment in her career, she can see why clients might want to try it. “It’s a big confidence boost, and in the case of the Brazilian Blowouts and straightening treatments, they do make the hair more manageable and easily maintained.”

In 2011, however, OSHA issued a hazard alert for salon employees warning against the use of hair straighteners containing formaldehyde. Canada, France, Ireland and Australia have recalled hair-smoothing products containing the chemical, and California, Oregon, Connecticut and New York have issued warnings to salons about formaldehyde, according to OSHA’s website. So far, North Carolina hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon.

Meanwhile, the FDA has hesitated to regulate the Brazilian Blowout and similar products, Switalski maintains. “They’ve supposedly been investigating this issue for five years or so; it’s been taking an incredibly long time. People are getting sick, and salon workers are really getting sick and getting formaldehyde poisoning. It’s not something you can ever get rid of.”

Women’s Voices for the Earth is urging the federal agency to issue a voluntary recall of all hair-straightening products containing formaldehyde. Switalski says the FDA needs more enforcement authority in order to take action on the issue and ban the product outright. “They don’t even feel empowered enough to do that,” she says.

Several Asheville salons use the Brazilian Blowout treatment, including Lola, Chestnut Hill Salon & Spa, Full Circle Salon, Marc Edward & Co. and Westside Shears.

Biggers, however, says that she and other Lola stylists use precautions like a fan, masks and gloves when administering the treatment.

Chestnut Hill owner Carla Stahl also stresses the importance of ventilation. If a client requests information about the treatment, she says, she refers them to the product’s website. Pressed for more details, however, Stahl said, “I’m really not comfortable with people continuing to pick apart this product.”

 Beauty workers most at risk

Asthma is another significant concern for beauty industry workers. In a 2013 study of over 20,000 Northern Europeans published in The Annals of Occupational Hygiene, hairdressers had one of the highest risks of new-onset asthma, compared with those in other professions.

Hannah Bailey, a stylist at Lola, says workers use an exhaust fan when doing a Brazilian Blowout treatment. But during her 10 years in the business, says Bailey, she’s known of only one stylist who quit due to an allergy.

And Charlie O’shields, who owns Hair Mechanix in Brevard, says she’s tried products that were labeled organic but found that many of her clients were allergic to them. A lot of all-natural hair products, she explains, contain derivatives of trees or grasses, and if you’re allergic to those, “You’re going to break out.”

O’shields’ salon has been open for six years, and she says she’s never suffered from an adverse reaction to the products she uses, though she knows of stylists who’ve developed allergies to hair dye after 20 or 30 years.

Hair Mechanix uses Bed Head products (which the Environmental Working Group rates as either “moderate” or “high hazard”), and Goldwell Topchic for color (which the database labels “high hazard”).

In 2010, the International Agency for Research on Cancer published an evaluation of studies on cancer risks associated with hair dyes. “Occupational exposures as a hairdresser or barber are probably carcinogenic to humans,” the agency concluded.

Newsome doesn’t dispute these products’ potential negative health effects, but he’s not convinced that they pose an immediate danger to the general public.

“Dyes consist of fairly large molecules which are not that volatile,” he says. “Some of the agents used during the dyeing process, however, are volatile, so any concerns regarding toxicity via inhalation should focus on exposure while the hair is being treated. After the hair dries, then you need to be aware of dermal toxicity of the dye that remains, but I believe risk is low with these types of molecules.”

For beauty workers, however, the risks appear greater.

A 2011 questionnaire completed by hairdressers in Denmark found that over 60 percent suffered from skin conditions on their hands, according to a report published in Contact Dermatitis. A 2011 article in Occupational Medicine said that the hairdressers surveyed had frequently reported musculoskeletal, skin and respiratory symptoms. And a study of the prevalence of dermatitis, allergic rhinitis and asthma in hairdressing students and practicing hairdressers in Melbourne, Australia, published in the Journal of Dermatology in 2006, found that almost 60 percent of respondents had experienced changes on their hands.

“I say all the time: Wear your gloves, don’t get contact dermatitis. It’s a problem; it is there,” notes Darlene Cope, director and lead instructor of the cosmetology program at Blue Ridge Community College. “But a mechanic has the same problems. You can’t pinpoint one industry.”

Lind shares Cope’s concern. “Our bodies absorb things through the skin as well as when we breathe in fumes,” she says. “I always wear gloves when applying color, and it’s important to do it even when shampooing the color out.”

Changing the focus

But simply asking workers to wear gloves or masks doesn’t get to the root of the problem, some natural hair care advocates maintain. If a mask is required when using a certain product, the stylist shouldn’t be using it at all, says Terry Craig.

Switalski agrees, arguing that salon workers shouldn’t have to wear protective equipment in order to stay safe in the workplace. “All of those things are fine, but the real problem is they’re working with toxic products. Let’s change that,” she says. “Let’s be innovative and find solutions so the industry is a clean industry, and people don’t have to trade their livelihood for their health. That’s not a fair choice.”

But until what the Craigs call “the beauty cartel” changes its attitude, they don’t see things changing.

“These are smart companies,” says Julie. “They’re only focused on beauty, not wellness. You might have a little startup company with organic products, but it’s in the back of the convention center. That’s part of the problem — those companies don’t get as much exposure.”

Biggers says that when she was in cosmetology school, the harmful effects of certain products weren’t discussed much. “We would glaze over it,” she says. “You would hear about it for allergies, but it wasn’t the main thing.”

Cope, though, says the beauty industry is gradually starting to create healthier products, using more fruit acids and removing sulfates. “In reality, sulfates aren’t such a bad thing for you,” she says. “The industry dictates that based on the desire of the public and tries to accommodate that desire.”

Like organic foods, however, natural products and services aren’t cheap. At The Water Lily, an all-organic salon in Asheville, women’s cuts run $50 to $55. At Chestnut Hill, on the other hand, a woman’s cut costs $30. Meanwhile, salon jobs don’t generally pay all that well. In 2011, the median hourly wage for hairdressers, hairstylists and cosmetologists was just $10.91 including tips and commissions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“I feel for stylists who work in traditional salons, who are exposed to it all the time. It’s hard for them to live a healthy life when they’re getting this exposure,” says Ann Buchman, a client of the Craigs. After trying out other, less expensive salons and experiencing a burning scalp days later, Buchman turned to Rapture for a chemical-free salon experience.

Growing awareness

Faced with the FDA’s glacial review process, big beauty companies’ extensive marketing campaigns and the higher cost of organic products, salon owners like the Craigs, Biggers and others say they’re doing their best to keep themselves and their clients healthy and safe.

Cope, meanwhile, says Blue Ridge Community College’s curriculum changes to keep up with the industry, so that graduating students are salon-ready. The school, she explains, is moving toward educating students in both traditional salon methods and natural, reparative techniques.

Asheville native Lynn Smith has worked in the beauty industry off and on since age 18, when she graduated from Asheville High School’s cosmetology program. That was 1987, and she says there wasn’t much discussion about organic products back then.

Smith, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business management, now works full time for a local bank. But she also makes her own chemical-free products from scratch using essential oils and butters, marketing them through her website.

For many people, she says, toxic chemicals are “par for the course as part of being beautiful. We just accept it.”

It was only recently that Smith herself, after hearing a report on the radio about harmful chemicals in some cosmetics, took a look at the products she was using and, realizing that she couldn’t even pronounce the ingredients, threw everything in the trash.

“There are a lot of chemicals [that people who use beauty products] come in contact with,” says Smith. “Now what we’re seeing in the hair field, especially among African-Americans, is they’re not putting chemicals in their hair. As we’re getting more awareness and seeing results, women are slowly becoming aware,” she reports. “But I think there still needs to be a lot more awareness across the board.”

Redefining beauty

Meanwhile, despite these challenges, many stylists say the industry has a positive impact overall. Cope, who’s been in cosmetology for 24 years, says it’s a privilege to serve others through her work.

“We can make a difference in how someone sees themself as well as how others see them,” she points out. “We can take someone from feeling really down and depressed to confident and happy in just a short amount of time.”

Lind, too, says there’s far more to her work than simply making clients look good. “When people come to the salon, they’re coming for whatever service they need, but they’re also coming for the time that they get to talk to their stylist and be pampered by the shampoo and blowouts,” she notes. “Sometimes stylists also act as counselors: People talk to us about all kinds of things, from joyous and exciting things to hard and difficult things that they’re going through.”

In addition, “Beauty and Its Beast” stresses that more research is needed, noting that in many cases, there’s insufficient data available to assess specific products and risks, and the existing studies are often contradictory.

Still, Buchman believes a move to more organic materials would benefit everyone. And if more clients demanded safer products, the increased volume would bring prices down.

For their part, the Craigs say they understand that change is scary for people, and while they don’t expect the shift to chemical-free to happen overnight, they’re glad to see some progress.

“What we have seen change is that there’s more of us out there,” says Julie. “We’re getting more organized, and these smaller companies have gotten bigger.”

Terry says clients, aided by the Internet, are educating themselves more now than ever before. And education, he believes, leads to better choices.

“What we’ve got now is a whole new ballgame, and it’s going to make for healthier clients and healthier stylists,” he predicts. “We’ve come around to health: That’s what beauty really is.”

American Cancer Society: Formaldehyde

Ananda Hair Studio

Blue Ridge Community College

Chestnut Hill Salon & Spa

FDA Salon Professionals: Fact Sheet

Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act

Hair Mechanix

Lola Salon & Gallery

Lynn Smith, Che’ Beautiful

Rapture Organic Salon

The Water Lily Organic Salon

Women’s Voices for the Earth


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About Elizabeth L. Harrison
Elizabeth is a freelance writer who recently moved to Western North Carolina. She is a 2009 graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism, and her work has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout Montana. Follow her on Twitter at @elizharrison.

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2 thoughts on “Organic salons reject toxic beauty products

  1. Tonya Johnson

    Hi my name is Tonya Johnson, I’ve been a hairstylist for 25 years and have currently been introduced to a product line called Monat it’s a naturally based product, free of harmful chemicals. It is not organic. I enjoyed reading your article. You are very knowlegable. Have you done any research on Monat Global? I would love to hear your feedback. Thanks

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