The Beauty Industry’s Invisible Victims

Screen shot 2014-11-11 at 4.53.18 PMGetting 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 Hallett is research editor at Ms. Find her on Twitter @stephhallett.


  1. Elayne Deschler, RRT says:

    Thanks so much for great information! I think it is so important to remind workers that the chemicals they are exposed to carry great risk. More precautions should be taken to protect them! While some workers may be aware that they are inhaling harmful chemicals into their lungs, many do not realize that the damage is often irreversible. Over time, people suffer from interstitial lung disease and pulmonary fibrosis from occupational exposures. If you do not use proper protective gear at least properly ventilate work areas!!! Thanks again for bring this issue to light!! – Elayne M. Deschler, RRT-NPS

    • Alicia M., Licensed Beautican 13yrs. says:

      This is very valuable information. Many stylists are not aware of the hazardous effects of frequent exposure to these harmful chemicals. I encourage professionals in this industry to take this information seriously and look into healthier alternatives. Research, research, research!!!

  2. I never gave this much thought. Thanks for the enlightenment Stephanie and Ms. Magazine!

  3. Thanks for the article. I went in a nail salon. The smell was so intense I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never gone back to one. Thanks so much for the info.
    As a side note, I work in healthcare. I’ve gone by rooms being cleaned by housekeeping and the bleach and other chemicals were so strong it would’ve taken your breath away. This person had no mask on. There’s no access to fresh air in these new buildings.
    We’re poisining ourselves.

  4. Thank you so much for covering this issue! It’s unbelievable what these chemicals are doing to stylists and nail technicians, and the story needs to be told.

  5. I’m glad someone has done research on this issue and established these findings. There’s a burgeoning beauty industry in India where most urban women go to Beauty Parlours to get their nails done, eyebrows threaded and for some form of hair care. The products used aren’t regulated and are harsh enough on the customer to prevent some of us from using these services. I can’t even begin to imagine the effects on the people who work there. Add to that a lack of education and awareness. We have no idea how bad it is here. Hoping for some research on the Indian beauty industry.

  6. This is completely a new information for me. I was surprised to see these things about salon workers. I always visit salons and they give me good results, but it’s too sad that they have to face problems like this.

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