Stylists: The Choice Between Our Careers & Our Health

Jennifer Arce testifying

Stylists: The Choice Between Our Careers & Our Health

Jennifer Arce 3

Jennifer Arce
WVE Member

It’s easy to wake up and go to work each day in the salon industry because you’re surrounded by people who are doing what they love. I chose my career as a hairstylist at a very young age; hair is my passion and I’ve always known it. The beautiful thing about this industry is the relationships we build with our clients (Psst…don’t worry your secrets are always safe with us…wink, wink), and there’s an indescribable feeling we get when we change the way a person feels about themselves.

Unfortunately, many of us find ourselves making a difficult decision. We’re being forced to take a hard look at our lives and question…. Is our love for our career really worth giving up our health?

What’s happening to salon workers?

It’s been over two and a half years since it was discovered that Brazilian Blowout and other hair smoothing treatments contained high levels of formaldehyde, even though many were labeled “formaldehyde free.” So why are these products still being used in salons every day?
What may have started as burning eyes, sore throats and nosebleeds two and a half years ago have now escalated into chronic sinus infections, debilitating migraines, and respiratory infections that last for months. People who were once perfectly healthy are now sickly, many have permanent eye damage, and asthma that requires multiple inhalers is becoming quite the norm.

Sure, there have been Hazard Alerts from OSHA, warning letters, and multi-million dollar class-action lawsuits. HECK…Brazilian Blowout was even sued by the entire state of California! But no one seems to have the power to get these dangerous products off the market!

Outdated lawsMichelle Pippin Johnson

Most of us assume the products we use each day have been tested for safety or approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they hit the shelves, but guess what? They’re not. Our current cosmetic laws were established in 1938. HELLO….that was 75 years ago! Do you have any idea how many chemicals have been introduced into the market since then?!

Unfortunately, the FDA has such little authority over cosmetics that even if they do determine a product is harmful or unsafe, they DO NOT have the power to issue a recall that will take that product off the market.

So guess who’s REALLY in charge of making sure products are safe? The cosmetic industry! They make their OWN rules about the safety of their products!

When an industry regulates itself

To make a bad situation worse, professional salon products aren’t required to have ingredient listings. So how do we know if a product we’re using on you, our client, is safe? We don’t. We’re forced to rely on what the companies tell us, and believe me… they don’t have the best track record for the truth!

Oh, some companies have gotten really good at using this LACK of regulation to their advantage. Crazy false advertising has become the newest trend!

Companies marketing professional salon products as “safe” have recently been caught:

–        Intentionally omitting hazardous ingredients from Material Safety Data Sheets

–        24 hair smoothing products that claimed they contained little formaldehyde or were “formaldehyde free” were found to contain high levels of formaldehyde

–        Nail products were found to contain hazardous chemicals despite their labels claiming otherwise

–        Stylists are being tricked into believing Keratin Complex is “OSHA approved” when OSHA does not even approve products

Obviously allowing the cosmetic industry to police itself is the classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse.

Is this EVER a good idea?!

Innocent victims

What’s most disturbing is that innocent clients are breathing in formaldehyde and are completely unaware. When hair straightening formulas are heated, formaldehyde may be  released as a gas so EVERYONE in the salon is exposed. This includes clients who have cancer, clients who are pregnant, and even children who are in the salon.

And salon workers like myself who are getting sick from exposure and want NOTHING to do with formaldehyde are forced to breathe this in day in and day out!

Prepared to fight

I’m not going to just sit back and let some silly little multi-BILLION-dollar cosmetic industry take away my career. I’m going to fight like hell – and if I’m going down, I’m going down swinging!

I started by collecting letters from sick salon workers all over the country, determined to send them to ANYONE who would listen! (That’s how I met the lovely folks at WVE.)

These letters are from stylists, manicurists and receptionists, and even estheticians in their own facial rooms unable to escape illness because formaldehyde fumes creep under their doors. Our stories and symptoms are eerily the same. In addition to the health issues, our careers and livelihood are being threatened.

Many of us have had to quit our jobs to try and avoid formaldehyde while others have been bullied or threatened to be fired for speaking up about being sick. Because these treatments are so profitable, it’s hard to find a salon that doesn’t do them in some form. And thanks to false advertising, many still believe the product they use is safe or formaldehyde free.

Eventually I met Dawn Marino and Natalija Josimov, two of the stylists who wrote me letters, when the Healthy Nail and Beauty Salon Alliance sent us to D.C. last year for the National Salon Week of Action.
Jennifer testifying
I spoke on behalf of sick salon workers at an Interagency Meeting that included the EPA, OSHA, NIOSH, DOL, former White House Cabinet Secretary Chris Lu and Dr. Linda Katz from the FDA. Each agency is now FULLY AWARE of the severity of this situation and received copies of all the letters.

But in order to really get anything changed, it was imperative that we meet with lawmakers because only they have the authority to create much needed laws! We met with representatives, shared our stories, and urged them to take action.

Meeting others on the same crusade gives you a sense of empowerment. Together we can make changes happen! Changes like these:

Natalija’s passion to get formaldehyde out of hair treatments prompted a petition on

Dawn and I created to spread awareness and untangle the confusion within the beauty industry. We expose the companies whose products are harmful to our industry and those that engage in false advertising. And occasionally we have a little fun here and there… because hey, sometimes a girl’s gotta laugh to keep from crying! And believe me, there have been tears. A lot of tears.

Giving the beauty industry a makeover

Our heroes Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Rep. Ed Markey have come to save the day by introducing the Safe Cosmetics & Personal Care Products Act. This legislation is EXACTLY what’s needed to protect families AND the salon industry. If passed, all ingredients will be fully disclosed allowing us to make decisions as informed consumers. Salons would be safer because harmful ingredients like formaldehyde would be phased out and the FDA would finally have the authority to recall dangerous products and take them off the market.

No one should ever have to choose between their health and their career and we want YOU to be safe when you visit a salon! So let’s stick together and spread the word.

Together we CAN and we MUST get this bill passed!

We want to SAFELY do what we do best…make the world a more beautiful place one client at a time!

17 Responses

  1. Jo

    UNBELIEVEABLE and frightening that the FDA has NOT had the authority to remove products known to be unsafe for consumers. I linked on the “take action” tab and urge others to do the same. Great blog!

  2. Hollie

    Keep fighting Jen, we are all supporting you in this. Thank you for not only protecting yourself, but the health of your clients too.

  3. I had no idea my hairdresser may use such toxic products. Some of their hair products do stink horribly! I sed to go to an organic hairdresser, but she was too far and accessing her basement hair dressing salon was difficult. Then our public transit went on strike — I don’t have a car and couldn’t get there. After the strike I didn’t go back, for some reason.

  4. Angie O'Neil

    Jenny, we in the hair industry are so fortunate to have you fighting the fight and creating the awareness needed about “these” companies and their environmental poisoning products!

    Thank you,

  5. Sal

    Jen, this is great as always and I have such a deep respect for you and Dawn! Please post this on LinkedIn as there is someone there who really needs to read it! Also put up on Harbrained. Thanks for all you both do!
    Regards, Sal

  6. Gina

    Jenny, thank you so much for keeping us in the indrustry inforfmed and updated. A lot of salon workers think all these terrible products have been taken off the market since the news doesn’t report these stories anymore. Or that they wouldn’t be allowed to be on the market in the first place. Unfortunately I have experienced these illnesses first hand and feel forgotten about. Thank you for continuing to fight for our industry and our health!

  7. I am so so glad to read such as important complaint from a hair stylist . This is really serious matter. And it is true that FDA regulations about cosmetics are obsolete while the cosmetic industry do and decide whatever they want. This is one big reason I switch to Organic beauty many years ago. Keep on fighting . You have all my support .

  8. Nan

    I’m allergic to polyquaternium which is a preservative that breaks down into formaldehyde. It is VERY HARD to find any product that does not contain that stuff. I read labels and live by trial and error. Aveda used to be a safe place but some of their products now contain polyquaternium, too. I rarely let a salon wash my hair or use any product in it. They give me strange looks and simply don’t understand. If you have a suggestion of a safe salon in the Akron, OH area, please let me know!

  9. Cindy

    Thank you so much for speaking out about this. I am a manicurist who has been suffering from these treatments for years. I want NOTHING to do with formaldehyde either and I too have had to quit my job. We’ve had clients in the salon suffer symptoms from someone else getting a treatment and they had no idea why. We need to stop this from happening.

  10. N

    Well Jen it’s a great cause and I sincerely wish you the best. After spending 30 years in the same industry and working on all levels from salon to educator to sales I can tell you that taking on these companies is tantamount to taking on big pharma…they’re all in the same bed. I demo’d a product similar to BB and was lied to constantly about it’s safety even after I had my own testing done. And yes arguments can be made regarding the chemical compositions of formaldehyde and formalin as I’m sure you have heard..blahdy blah…

    This business is wrought with poison.. Ammonia, Sodium Laryl sulphate, parabens, surfactants, MEA, BPA, propellants..on and on. There were studies done in the 70’s that showed comparisons to stylists lung deterioration to be on par with coal miners…so if you’re going to lobby be prepared that you are not only going up against an antiquated, useless, corporation owned department, (FDA) but you had also better note the constant pollution and chemical exposure you and your clients face DAILY using the products you’ve always taken for granted… I highly recommend involving health and workplace safety as the salon air quality is not monitored as in other trades such as carpentry for example, and once THAT hits the fan, and legislation changes laws regarding the salon environment, then you’ll see corporations succumb to lower VOC’s and the like to meet air quality standards. Until then remember that the L’Oreals, and the P&G’s of this world don’t give a shit about stylists, only profits.

  11. N

    And BTW Aspartame converts to Formaldehyde when ingested, so for all you stylists working through lunch and pounding the diet sodas….

  12. Jenny,
    I want to help. After being in the industry for over 20 years, the realization came to me several years back…..yeah this profession is pretty toxic.I almost gave up doing what I love because this industry not only breeds toxic products, but toxic personalities as well.I have had my own health issues related to the profession. Fortunately, at that time I was presented with an opportunity to have my own shop. I knew I wanted to make a change, It was a trying time for me, afraid of losing clients and support.I lost support from the distributors I have come to know over the years, I also lost some clients for my decisions.Oh well.
    6 years later I am still in business and am happily overwhelmed, and need help with my overflow and being able to reach target markets that I have lost.
    Yep, my business is expanding and I am currently making room for cosmetologists to fill positions! Except there is one problem. They are still where I was at 7 years ago, or dropping out of cosmetology schools because of toxic products or toxic individuals.
    I think the schools need to be more regulated and have other alternatives, instead of what they are currently offering.
    There is so much I have learned over the past several years,,,it’s time to share and help out others doing what they love to do.

  13. Thank you for all of the wonderful comments and for keeping the conversation going! The best thing we can do is to continue to spread the word, create awareness and lower the demand.
    Sadly, this issue affects the whole family and even children are not immune. These controversies aren’t ONLY in professional salon products, but over the counter personal care products as well. They’ve found formaldehyde in baby shampoo, mercury in face creams and lead in lipstick! These scandals are going to continue until we fight this and DEMAND that our products be safe.

  14. Savi

    Question: has Brazilian blowout changed their formulations or have they just reworded their campaign?

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