The Search for a Non-Toxic Salon

Image: person getting a manicure. Topic: The Search for a Non-Toxic Salon

When hair stylist Luis Alfonso and his partner Caroline Holley decided to start their own beauty salon, they knew they wanted to go green to lessen their impact on the environment. That’s why Swing Salon, located in New York City’s Soho neighborhood, uses truly natural and organic products.

Many of Swing Salon’s clients started going there because of the salon’s location, but Holley notes that clients can’t help but notice that they are in a different, healthier, type of hair salon.

“People are surprised to walk into a hair salon and not be hit in the face with the smell of ammonia,” she says. “They are so used to hair color treatments that burn their scalps that they are surprised to experience a healthier alternative.”

That surprise isn’t uncommon. Many people assume that if a hair or body treatment is used at a local salon, it must be regulated and safe for use. But they’re wrong—in fact, due to loopholes in the Toxic Control Substance Act (TSCA), the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no authority to require companies to test products for safety, placing the authority with states instead.

As a result, consumers and workers are being exposed to dangerous toxins through salon products like nail polish, hair straighteners, and more. Fortunately, you can find healthy alternatives, either by finding a green salon or going green with beauty treatments at home.

Incomplete Ingredient Lists

Over-the-counter body care products are required by law to include a list of ingredients on their labels—the only exception being the chemical soup that goes into a given product’s scent, which can be hidden under the term “fragrance” as it’s considered proprietary information.

However, the loophole is bigger for salon products, says Jamie Silberberger, who works at Women’s Voices For the Earth’s National Healthy Nail and Beauty Salon Alliance, a coalition of public health advocates pushing for better safety in nail and hair salons. “Products sold for professional use in spas and salons are not required to be labeled with ingredients,” she says.

Silberberger notes that while salon products often come with Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) that list “hazardous” ingredients, they don’t list all chemicals of concern, and they are typically only available in English. English fluency is not required to become a certified hair or nail technician. Keep yourself and your family safe by avoiding the worst treatments and products.

Hair Straightening

One salon treatment—the Brazilian Blowout hair straightening treatment—can be so toxic that it continues to expose customers and salon workers to toxic fumes for months after it is done. Brazilian Blowout and other straightening products contain formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen.

For salon worker Jennifer Arce, performing just one Brazilian Blowout treatment exposed her to what her doctor suspected was “possible chemical poisoning.” After suffering breathing problems and migraines, bloody noses, blistery rashes, and bronchitis, Arce moved to a salon that banned hair straighteners, but her trouble didn’t end there.

“Exposure to formaldehyde doesn’t end with the treatment—the fumes are reactivated every time heat is applied to the hair,” says Arce. “So when a client who’s had a Brazilian Blowout done elsewhere comes into the salon to get a haircut or color and has her hair blowdried, flatironed, curled, or processed under the hood dryer, the fumes that come out of her hair make me and several of my coworkers sick all over again.”

After hearing similar stories from other salon workers, Jennifer gathered letters to send to the FDA, and in the summer of 2012, she went to Washington, DC, as part of the National Healthy Nail and Beauty Salon Alliance Week of Action.

Actions like these resulted in a victory in November 2012, when the California Superior Court ordered GIB, the makers of the Brazilian Blowout, to stop selling its product in California after finding that it emits smog-forming pollutants at levels higher than allowed by the California Air Resources Board. GIB was asked to present a new, reformulated product to meet California Air Quality Standards.

“This is a great victory, but certainly not the end of our work,” says Silberberger, “Brazilian Blowout is just the tip of an iceberg.”

What to do: Avoid chemical hair straightening treatments. Sign on to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ petition requesting that the FDA take greater action to get the Brazilian Blowout off US shelves by visiting

Hair Dyes and Extensions

About two-thirds of conventional hair dyes in the US contain para-phenylenediamine (PPD), a chemical banned for use in such products in Germany, France, and Sweden. Exposure to PPD can cause allergic reactions ranging from skin irritation to, in the case of a teenager in 2010, death from anaphylactic shock.

And an ingredient analysis by the Environmental Working Group found that many conventional hair dyes include known carcinogens in ingredients derived from coal tar. A 2009 report from the University of Santiago de Compostela reviewed studies examining the risk of cancer among hairdressers and related workers. They report that the 247 studies showed these workers having a higher risk of cancer than the general population.

Hair extensions can also be a point of concern. Many adhesives used on extensions may contain 1-4 dioxane, which is listed as a probable carcinogen by the US EPA, and styrene, a neurotoxin and suspected endocrine disruptor.

What to do: Look for a green salon that uses natural hair color treatments free from synthetic chemicals, ammonia, or PPD (see resources below). You can also
order your own from EcoColors.

Nail Polish

When getting a mani-pedi, beware of the “toxic trio”: dibutyl phthalate, formaldehydeand toluene. These chemicals, which are used to help nail products hold color, are linked to reproductive and development problems, as well as dizziness, eye and lung irritation, and more. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.

Facing pressure from consumer groups and salon workers, some polish companies are now producing “nontoxic” nail polish without the “toxic trio”—or so they claim. However, “nontoxic” labels are not verifiable. A 2011 study by California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control tested 25 nail polishes sold for salon use, 12 of which made claims to be free of toxic-trio ingredients; the study found that 10 of 12 products claiming to be toluene-free still contained toluene, and five of seven products claiming to be completely free of the “toxic trio” contained one or more of those chemicals.

“This is a perfect example of the failure of our regulatory system,” says Silberberger. In addition, nail polish and acrylic nails can contain other chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, and more, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

What to do: Bring your own less-toxic nail polish and make sure the salon is well ventilated. For New Yorkers, The Nail Belle is the first Green America-certified nail salon.

Find a Green Salon

Many conventional body products, like shampoos and massage oils, can contain a litany of ingredients that add to your chemical exposure. Visit a green salon, like Swing Salon, which makes sure all of their products are as low-toxicity as possible.

A large network of independently owned “concept salons” across the US are connected with Aveda, a national leader in developing hair and body products free from the most dangerous ingredients. More than 90 percent of Aveda’s essential oils and 89 percent of its raw herbal ingredients are certified organic.

“We review all ingredients from a personal health and environmental standpoint and are always working to increase the amount of our products that are certified organic,” says Marc Zollicoffer, Aveda’s director of spa education and sales.

If you’re going to the spa, look for a member of the Green Spa Network, a coalition of green-minded spas across the US that pledge to be energy efficient and sustainable in all their practices.

If there isn’t a green salon near you, bring your own nontoxic products to your salon if allowed. Buy from screened green businesses listed at, and visit the Skin Deep Database to find least-toxic products for at-home use