Who doesn’t love a trip to the salon? You get to sit down, relax, and let someone else do the work, and when you get done, you usually feel more confident about your appearance and yourself.
For some women, though, the salon experience isn’t so restorative. In a recent 2017 survey of hair and nail salon clients, more than two-thirds reported that they’d experienced one or more health issues after visiting a salon. Problems included skin reactions, respiratory problems, and fungal infections.
Of course, you don’t want your hair coloring or nail appointment to leave you with these types of issues. Here’s how to protect yourself and increase your odds that your salon appointment will be as relaxing and restorative as you expect.
3 Ways Your Salon Visit Can Make You Sick
Because salons use a myriad of different chemicals, serve a lot of people in the same space, and require certain cleaning standards that are not always followed, women can end up developing some sort of infection or reaction after visiting. Below are three of the most commonly reported, and what causes them.
- Fungal Infections
In the survey above, only 10 percent of the respondents reported having developed fungal infections after their salon visits. A shocking study out of Rutgers University reported in 2017 that more than half of people that visit beauty salons in the U.S. regularly have suffered from skin and fungal diseases.
The most common is a nail fungal infection, either on the fingers or toes, depending on which you had treated. Fungi like warm, moist environments, and may be lurking on your nail technician’s tools, like the clipping, buffing, and cutting implements. If these aren’t properly cleaned and disinfected after every use, fungus can be transferred from someone else’s nails to yours.
Symptoms of a nail infection include a white or yellow spot under the nail, thick or distorted nails, brittle or crumbly nails, and dark-colored nails. Over time, the nail can separate from the nail bed, causing pain and increasing risk of other infections.
Unfortunately, fungal infections can stubbornly resist treatment. Though there are over-the-counter creams and ointments meant to beat back the fungi, these are often ineffective. If you develop a fungal nail infection, check with your doctor. He or she is likely to prescribe oral medications that will allow the new nail to grow free of the infection.
Be ready to be patient. It could be four months or longer before your infection is completely gone.
- Skin and Scalp Reactions
Chemicals, chemicals, and more chemicals. Whether you’re coloring your hair, removing your nail polish, or getting extensions, there are going to be chemicals involved. Some of these can cause skin rashes and inflammation in people who are sensitive to them.
One of the most commonly reported skin allergies from salons involves an allergy to hair dye. Mish Whalen, a Today senior multimedia editor, reported her difficult experience with hair color in February 2017. She had gotten her hair colored before, but about 24 hours after this particular visit, her head started to itch, badly. The next day, she says “my head was huge.” It was also red and itchy and she had hives and burning.
“I just had an overall feeling of being sick,” she said. Worst of all, her head was so swollen up that “it made me feel like I looked disfigured.”
Whalen went to her doctor and was treated for a serious allergic reaction. She gradually recovered, but it took about a week. Unfortunately, she’s not alone. According to a 2007 story, allergic reactions to hair dye are increasing. Researchers noted that most hair dyes contain a chemical called “para-phenylenediamine (PPD),” which has been blamed for an increasing number of allergic reactions.
PPD is a chemical derived from coal tar that is used in many permanent and semi-permanent hair ties. The problem is that it can create what is called a “cumulative” allergy. That means that over time, as you’re exposed again and again, the body may grow sensitive and eventually react. Symptoms may include an itching or burning scalp, rash, hives, swelling, and hair loss.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also warns that hair dyes have caused eye injuries–including blindness–when used in the eye area, so they have banned the use of so-called “coal-tar” dyes for eyebrow or eyelash dyeing.
Other skin reactions possible after a trip to a salon include contact dermatitis, which is inflammation in the skin that may appear red, or may develop into a rash or blister. Some polishes, polish removers, or other chemicals or products used in the salon can cause these types of reactions in sensitive people.
- Respiratory Problems
When you walk into your salon, what do you smell?
Unfortunately, you may get an overpowering inhale of chemicals. In the survey mentioned at the beginning of this article, one in six participants reported respiratory symptoms like a runny nose, itching or watering eyes, trouble breathing, and headache after leaving their salon. These problems were more likely in nail salons than hair salons.
The issue here is the chemicals used and the quality of the ventilation in the building. Many of the chemicals used are associated with respiratory irritation, and are likely to affect those with asthma the most.
The “toxic trio,” for example–toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate–is used in most nail salons. All three chemicals are associated with serious health issues, including respiratory problems. Other chemicals including acrylates, solvents, and biocides can make their way into the dust and air vapor where they can be inhaled. In 2011, researchers reported a higher range of respiratory problems in nail technicians, and other studies have reported similar results.
The situation is so concerning that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has created standards for chemical safety in nail salons, advising owners to choose safer products when possible, and to improve ventilation in their work areas. Laboratory tests from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) show that exhaust ventilation systems can reduce worker chemical exposure in nail salons by at least 50 percent.
Clients, of course, are exposed to these potentially dangerous fumes less often than workers, but they may still suffer from temporary side effects because of them.
10 Ways to Increase Your Safety at the Salon
Considering these and other safety issues, what can you do to protect your health the next time you go? Try these tips:
- Choose carefully: Particularly when choosing a nail salon, be choosy. Check to see that it looks clean and is licensed by the state cosmetology board. Watch how the technicians sanitize (or don’t) their hair and nail tools, and look for an oven-like device called an “autoclave,” which is used to heat and sterilize equipment. Nail salons that use disposable plastic liners in the footbaths are also preferable. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about their policies.
- Ask for safer hair-dye options: Because of consumer demand, there are many newer hair dye options on the market today. These include henna or all-natural colors. These aren’t as effective on gray hair, however, but there are newer products entering the market that don’t contain PPD that are. (Look for the statement “PPD-free.”) Don’t be afraid to ask your stylist about these other options, or to seek out salons that are more likely to use them.
- Look for safer nail-polish options: Many nail polishes are full of toxic chemicals, preservatives, and other toxins. Look for those that are labeled as “5-free,” which means they don’t contain formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, toluene, camphor, or formaldehyde resin.
- Push back, don’t clip: When getting your nails done, be cautious about having your cuticles cut. This can lead to a small nick, which will then allow bacteria or fungi in. Opt for a push-back only.
- Take your own tools: If you have a weakened immune system, or if you’re going through an illness like cancer that leaves you more vulnerable to infections, consider taking your own nail tools to your manicure or pedicure.
- Color less often: Allergies to chemicals like PPD can develop over time, as you are exposed again and again. Scientists believe that salons are seeing more reactions to hair dyes because more younger women are coloring their hair. If you are allergic to other chemicals, or have experienced dermatitis or other skin reactions in the past to other allergens, you could be more at risk. Consider limiting the amount of colorings you get per year. Try to make each one last longer by shampooing less often, using color-safe shampoo, and using over-the-counter sprays to cover gray spots in between appointments.
- Ask for a patch test: Before using a specific dye, ask your stylist to do a patch test. Usually, he or she will place a little of the color behind your ear, or on the inside of your elbow, let it dry, and then rinse later. If you experience a reaction, avoid the dye. You can do this yourself with at-home dyes as well.
- Don’t shave before you go: When you shave, you slough off the top layer of skin and leave open pores and small nicks (invisible to the naked eye) that can let in dangerous bacteria or other microorganisms. Even if the salon is careful about cleaning the footbaths, bacteria can live in the pipes that supply the water. It’s best to be safe. Avoid shaving at least one day leading up to your pedicure.
- Go early in the day: Most salons clean everything at the end of the day, so the sooner you go in the next day, the lower your risk of developing an infection. The American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA) recommends that you make your salon appointment for first thing in the morning because footbaths and other tools are more likely to be clean and bacteria-free.
- Wash after you leave: After you leave the salon, wash your hands (and feet if you got a pedicure). Your hands especially pick up bacteria, and if you touch your face, you’ll transmit that bacteria into your body. Either wash before you leave, or make a pit stop before going on with the rest of your day. You can also take along a hand sanitizer and use that on your hands and/or feet.
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