The Beauty Industry’s Invisible Victims

Getting a manicure or a blowout is a regular part of many women’s grooming routines, and we’re all familiar with the risks those treatments can sometimes involve. But we don’t always consider the consequences of hair and nail pampering on the women providing those services.

A new report from Women’s Voices for the Earth, “Beauty and its Beast,” sheds light on the health risks facing salon workers—and the results are startling.

  • 60 percent of salon workers suffer from dermatitis and other skin conditions on their hands
  • Hair and nail salon workers frequently experience decreased lung function
  • Hairdressers face an increased risk of miscarriage and babies born with cleft palates
  • Hairdressers have been shown to have an increased risk of developing breast cancer, lung cancer, cancer of the larynx, bladder cancer and multiple myeloma

The report found that toxic chemicals, such as formaldehyde, toluene and phthalates are at the root of many of these serious health problems. Salon workers—mostly women of color—inhale the toxins and absorb them through their skin while providing treatments.

In an investigative report published in the Fall 2014 issue of Ms., author Heather White took a deep dive into the world of toxic chemicals in personal-care products and found that those listed above, plus many more, are contributing to poor health outcomes in consumers—just as they’re harming salon workers. (Click here to get the issue and learn more).

As White wrote,

Every day, the average woman uses 12 personal-care products filled with 168 ingredients. All in all, Americans buy around $60 billion worth of personal-care products yearly and apply them without a second thought. … [However] the Food and Drug Administration is not legally required to test, review or approve ingredients used in cosmetic products. It even lacks the ability to recall products that cause harm.

To protect vulnerable workers, Women’s Voices for the Earth recommends implementing better ventilation systems at salons, providing more protective equipment and using less-toxic products for treatments. The organization also supports the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act, which would regulate the use of certain toxic chemicals, such as mercury and lead, and require a full disclosure of ingredients from cosmetics companies. Ms. author White supports the legislation, too, adding that the act would provide the FDA with recall powers and require pre-market safety testing of ingredients.

To learn more about toxic chemicals in personal-care and salon products, get the Fall 2014 issue of Ms.

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Image via Beauty and its Beast report.



Stephanie hails from Toronto, Canada. She is a Ms. writer, a master of journalism candidate and a hip hop dancer/instructor/choreographer. She got her start in feminist journalism at the age of 16 when she was a member of the first editorial collective at Shameless magazine—and she has never looked back.