10 Ways to Reduce Your Exposure to Toxins in Hair Salon Products

Hair Salon

In July 2013, a new study published in Environmental Health Perspectives reported that women with the highest level of “phthalates” in their urine were twice as likely to have diabetes as those with the lowest.

Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastics, and they’re also common in fragrances and personal care products like hairspray. You’re likely exposed to these chemicals every day from the products you use, and particularly when you go to the salon to have your hair done.

In fact, we’re discovering that hair salons are major hubs for a number of toxic chemicals that may have negative effects on human health. Hair dyes, for instance, contain quaternium-15, which is a formaldehyde-releaser; phenylenediamine (PPD), which may be carcinogenic; and alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), potential hormone disruptors.

A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology stated, “Several studies suggest that toxic chemicals in hair products may be absorbed through the scalp in sufficient amounts to increase the risks of adverse health effects in women….”

Salon workers are most at risk, as they are exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis. As recently as 2011, researchers at the Cancer Prevention Institute of California and Asian Health Services found unsafe levels of toluene—a solvent linked to neurological, reproductive, and endocrine damage—on monitors attached to 80 workers at 20 different salons.

WVE Report

Women’s Voices for the Earth has been instrumental in pushing corporations to be more careful with what they’re putting into our products in the past. They pushed Johnson & Johnson, for example, to remove potentially dangerous chemicals like phthalates from their products by 2015.

Now, they’ve issued a new report that seeks to increase awareness of the potential risks to your health when you walk in the door to get your hair colored or straightened. A handy fact sheet provides a list of harmful chemicals to avoid that you can find online.

“If you’re like me,” says Cassidy Randall, Director of Outreach and Engagement for WVE, “you might have a good relationships with your stylist or manicurist, and you want her to know about this, too. Because here’s the thing—your stylist is even more exposed to these toxic chemicals and their related health impacts because she works with them on a daily basis for long hours at a time.”

Cassidy encourages everyone to download this new fact sheet and take it to your salon to see if any of the chemicals listed there may be in the products your stylist is using. If so, you can talk about potentially changing to safer alternatives.

Tips to Reduce Your Exposure

It’s not always easy to reduce your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals in hair products. Here are some tips to help you:

  1. Start a conversation. Talk to your stylist about the fact sheet from WVE. Find out which products may have the greatest health risks for you, and ask if the salon provides alternatives.
  2. Go beyond ingredients. Though you can find chemicals listed on the product’s ingredient deck, not all of them will be there. Fragrances, for instance, often contain a number of unknown chemicals. Ask your stylist to consult with the Safety Data Sheets that usually come with the products, or perhaps to call the manufacturer for more information.
  3. Take a sniff. How does the salon smell? You can tell a lot by the aroma. A highly chemical smell may indicate that the ventilation isn’t the best. Good ventilation is key, especially when dealing with nail polish and hair dyes. Choose those salons that smell more like fresh air.
  4. Go to fewer appointments. When we’re talking about toxic chemicals, it’s all about cumulative exposure. Do you really need to color your hair every six weeks? Ask your stylist if there may be other options for those in between times, so you can wait a little longer.
  5. Baby your hair. The healthier your hair, the longer you’ll preserve your color. Consider investing in color-saving products that support the health of your hair and help your color last longer. Protect from the sun, and go without a wash when you can.
  6. Consider semi-permanent. The more permanent a hair color, the more toxic it is. Try semi-permanent and temporary colors to see if they may work for what you need. You could even potentially use these in between your permanent hair coloring appointments.
  7. Dye only part of it. You may be just as happy with a few highlights or lowlights as you would with an all-over color, but you will cut back on your toxic exposure. In addition, these types of treatments usually don’t come in contact with your scalp as much as all-over color. Try not to get whole head and highlights on the same visit—that doubles your chemical dose.
  8. Look for safe salons. Many salons these days, in response to customer demand and because of concern for their workers, are turning to less toxic options. Ecocolors, hybrid and European brands often contain fewer chemicals and are used by these select salons. Try telling your stylist that you suffer from chemical sensitivity and find out if he or she can accommodate your needs.
  9. Try natural hair dyes. I talk about toxic hair dyes in another post. There are some out there that are less toxic that may work for you. If you’re dying at home, try Aubrey Organics, pure Henna, or NaturaTint.
  10. Try herbal solutions. If you’re super sensitive and want to try all-natural hair coloring, consider making your own herbal/food infusions at home. Brunettes can enrich their color by rinsing with teas made from rosemary, sage, raspberry leaves, parsley, or catnip; by rinsing with coffee or black tea; or by using an infusion of apple cider vinegar, rosemary, and coffee. Blondes can try rinses made from saffron, turmeric, calendula; or with infusions made of oat straw (Avena sativa), licorice root, and saffron. Redheads can try rinses made of cool, strong black coffee, or teas made with rosehips, red hibiscus, calendula or saffron. The Environmental Working Group suggests adding vitamin E, wheat germ oil, or avocado oil to help condition your hair at the same time.

How do you reduce your toxic exposure to salon products? Please share your thoughts and tips.


Matt McMillen, “Chemicals May be Risky to Nail Salon Workers,” WebMd, May 5, 2011.

“Safe Ways to Color Your Hair,” Environmental Working Group, http://www.ecomall.com/greenshopping/ewghair.htm.