How Safe are Salon Products?

If you’ve ever been taken aback by the pungent chemical cloud hanging over your local hair or nail salon, you’ve probably wondered whether it would be best to simply hold your breath (especially if you were around when Aquanet hairspray was burning a hole in the ozone layer!). The good news is that there is currently no indication that intermittent visits to the salon are hazardous to your health. On the other hand, if you work in a salon (and are therefore regularly immersed in these chemicals), you may be at risk– particularly if you are or plan to become pregnant. In this post you will find some of the major hazardous chemicals to look out for, how to keep yourself safe at work, and how to convey this information to your healthcare provider.

Common salon chemicals to avoid: The “toxic trio” and more

As a cautionary statement, it is generally important when talking about toxicants to be mindful of concentration. Some potentially toxic chemicals (even formaldehyde!) exist throughout our environment at baseline levels. But concentration matters. While the products at your salon may contain hazardous chemicals, the concentration in the product and in the surrounding air can be maintained at levels deemed safe by using proper precautions and ventilation.

Keeping concentration in mind, there are some key chemicals that salon employees should watch out for. Much of the existing data regarding these chemicals are still unclear, particularly at the low levels commonly seen in salons. However, there have been studies demonstrating the potential for health risks. Formaldehyde, found in both hair and nail products, is known to cause nasal cancers among workers exposed in the industrial setting. There may be effects on the reproductive system, though this is not yet proven. Take extra care when checking labels for formaldehyde, because it has several synonyms (e.g. formalin, methenal), and many chemicals can release formaldehyde when heated (such as while blow drying or flat-ironing). OSHA provides an extensive list of these chemicals here.

Other chemicals used in salons include nitrosamines, which have been linked to stomach and bladder cancer. Inhalation of solvents have been linked to decreased fetal growth, and facial abnormalities and learning deficits similar to fetal alcohol syndrome. Exposure to acrylates and phthalates, among many other chemicals, can cause occupational asthma. Together, formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate are known in the nail industry as the “toxic trio” due to the health effects of exposure to these chemicals.

How to stay safe if you work at a salon
Ideally, the salon where you work will provide products that are less toxic. There are particular formulations of nail polishes, polish removers, hair sprays, and straighteners that are safer than others. Specific products plus other tips for salon employees and owners are provided here.

If you can’t avoid working with chemicals that are known to be hazardous, there are additional measures you can take to protect yourself. First, you want to take into account all the products you are exposed to, including products that you don’t work with directly. For example, if you’re a hairstylist, don’t forget that you could be breathing the same fumes produced by adjacent nail services, and vice versa. The same reasoning applies to the make-up artists, receptionists, and assistants who can be exposed to chemicals from the air in hair and nail salons.

Once you make a list of products that may be in the air at work, check the safety data sheets (SDS) for those products. OSHA requires that 1) product manufacturers provide an SDS for every product that contains 1% of more of a hazardous chemical (or 0.1% for cancer-causing chemicals), and 2) your employer make all SDSs conveniently accessible to employees. Be sure to follow the specific precautions for each chemical, which may include things like wearing certain types of gloves, face masks, or gowns.

If you have concerns about the air quality at your work, you are entitled under the OSHAct to anonymously request that OSHA conduct an inspection to verify safe air levels. OSHA provides instructions about indoor air quality inspections here. Even if OSHA concludes that the air in the salon is safe, you should still follow the precautions outlined in the SDS.

Staying healthy beyond the workplace
Work is a huge part of our lives, and ideally your physician is already aware of your job and the risks it can involve. However, if you become ill and believe it could be related to chemicals at work, give your doctor a list of the chemicals you may be exposed to. This is especially true if you are or plan to become pregnant. There are more than 9,000 chemicals found in cosmetic products, so your physician may need to do some research to assess your specific situation.

Regardless of whether or not you work in a salon, information about your cosmetic ingredients can be easily accessed using the Environmental Working Group’s online database for cosmetic products called Skin Deep®.


Cartier, A., & Bernstein, D. (2017). Occupational asthma: Definitions, epidemiology, causes, and risk factors. In H. Hollingsworth (Ed.), UpToDate. Retrieved January 3, 2017 from

Kim et al., 2016. Reproductive disorders among cosmetologists and hairdressers: a meta-analysis. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, 89, 739-753. doi: 10.1007/s00420-016-1112-z


February 2018. This post was written by Marie Ellis, medical student, and edited by Dr. Susan Buchanan. The Region 5 PEHSU is part of a national network of experts in children’s and reproductive environmental health who provide medical consultation for health professionals, parents, caregivers, and patients on health risks due to natural or human-made environmental hazards. Call our hotline at (866) 967-7337 for questions about environmental exposures.


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