Biggest Salon Beauty Threats, Debunked

When Pam (not her real name), 47, celebrated her sister-in-law’s 40th birthday at an upscale day spa in Philadelphia, she assumed she’d leave with callous-free feet and freshly painted toes – her first pedicure. But a few days later, she shrugged off the mild pain and pressure typical of an ingrown toenail. “I didn’t think much of it,” she says.

But her symptoms slowly got worse, and things took a bad turn. “The following 24 hours were the most painful of my life — and I say this as someone who’s given birth to three children with no medication,” says Pam. “I felt a constant, throbbing pain shooting up my leg. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t eat or sleep.”

She went to a podiatrist who broke the bad news: Her toenail was infected, and a portion of it would have to be surgically removed. “My doctor said that the way the nail was clipped by the esthetician almost guaranteed I’d wind up with an infected ingrown toenail,” she laments. Recovery took weeks. All that for her first pedicure.

You’ve probably heard similar salon horror stories. But just how common are they? Read this before you book your next haircut, manicure, or other beauty service.

The Fear: You'll get skin cancer from the nail dryer.

Beauty Threat: Medium

Beauty Hype, Headlines, and Reality

While it’s true that unskilled workers, mishandled products, and unsanitary conditions can put you at risk for burns, rashes, and infections, most salon treatments are pretty safe. But real-women anecdotes, scary headlines, and online rumors — from shampoo positions that trigger stroke to manicures that raise skin cancer risk — still manage to grab our attention and nurture our fears. So which treatments, if any, should you really worry about? We talked to experts to develop a get-real beauty threat guide to help you easily identify which are risky, which aren’t, and how to protect yourself no matter what.

Brazilian Blowout Safety

The Fear: Keratin smoothing treatments can lead to breathing problems and nosebleeds.

Beauty Threat: High

Keratin-smoothing treatments have recently taken off as a miracle treatment for frizzy manes. The in-salon service infuses the hair’s cuticle with the protein keratin, a natural component of hair, to fill in any gaps along the strands that are dry or damaged, which causes frizziness. The result is smooth, shiny locks that last for up to five months. The problem: Many formulas contain the chemical formaldehyde — a known carcinogen — to modify the keratin proteins so hair stays straighter longer.

Although formaldehyde is safe at concentrations less than 0.2 percent, says Fred Berman, PhD, director of the Toxicology Information Center at the Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology in Portland, Ore., independent testing revealed it’s often present at much higher levels. Some salon keratin formulas contain an alarming 12 percent — surprisingly, even some labeled formaldehyde-free. That's why this salon service can make you sick. “Formaldehyde interacts with proteins in your body’s cells, which can cause allergies or asthma,” says Dr. Berman. Stylists and customers have reported nosebleeds, breathing problems, and eye irritation after using formaldehyde- containing products.

Hair Dye Irritation

The Fear: Getting your hair colored will fry your scalp.

Beauty Threat: Medium

A key ingredient in permanent hair color is the harsh chemical ammonia, which opens the hair cuticle and lifts out natural pigment, leaving it open for replacement with new color. The lighter your color choice, the more ammonia it takes. “In some people ammonia can irritate or — in extreme cases — burn the scalp,” says Amy Taub, MD, assistant clinical professor in dermatology at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. Even with dye advancements, scalp irritation is still a possibility.

Hair Dye and Cancer

The Fear: Hair dye causes cancer.

Beauty Threat: Low

You may have heard of a link between hair dye and cancer, but experts say such risks are very small for the average woman (although hair-care professionals may have an increased risk). The background: Earlier versions of dyes contained chemicals that were then found in the late 1970s to cause cancer in animal studies. After the link was discovered, manufacturers removed many of these toxic chemicals. While past studies have found a positive link between long- term use of dark hair coloring and cancers of the bladder and blood, more recent studies — after such chemicals were removed from dye formulas — haven’t found strong links. “There’s no evidence to suggest you should stop coloring your hair,” says Berman. “If there’s any risk at all, it’s likely very small.”

Stay Salon Safe

Despite the low risk, these tips can help reduce your exposure to hair dye chemicals:

  • If possible, wait to color your hair until it starts to turn gray to reduce long-term exposure to dye.
  • Use dyes with fewer chemicals, like henna or vegetable-based dyes. Be aware that these dyes don’t penetrate hair, so they might fade quickly and are not a good option for covering gray.
  • For at-home color, reduce contact with chemicals: Carefully follow package directions, wear gloves, and don’t leave coloring products on hair longer than necessary.

Salon Shampoos and Stroke

The Fear: Leaning your head back while getting shampooed can trigger a stroke.

Beauty Threat: Low

Believe it or not, “salon stroke syndrome” does exist, but it’s extremely rare. The issue grabbed national attention in 2007 when a 59-year-old woman in Maryland nearly died after her heart stopped while she was getting her hair washed. Though it’s hard to believe that sudsing up at the salon can trigger a stroke, it is physically possible. “Tilting your head back at a sharp angle can pinch the arteries in the back of the neck and stretch those up front,” explains David Pearle, MD, director of the coronary care unit at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. “Those temporarily blocked arteries may cause a stroke [in certain high-risk patients].” Symptoms can be mild initially, like balance problems or trouble speaking, but the after-effects of a stroke can be quite serious. Most people shouldn’t be concerned, but use the following tips if you’re over age 55, are at risk for stroke, or have an artery disease (such as carotid artery disease) or arthritis in your neck.

Head Lice from Haircuts

The Fear: You’ll get head lice or some other infection from shared hair brushes and combs.

Beauty Threat: Low

Brushes, combs, and other salon tools touch multiple heads of hair every day, so they can spread nasties like lice or fungus. But as long as they’re thoroughly disinfected between clients, the risk of contagion is pretty small, says Nicole Tabloff, color director for Sassoon Salon. Lice outbreaks aren’t likely because “good stylists and colorists thoroughly examine the hair and scalp first. If they find evidence of lice, which is easy to spot, that person simply won’t get serviced, and you better believe all of the tools will be sanitized again,” she explains.

Funky Nail Salon Fumes

The Fear: Nail salon fumes can cause nerve disorders.

Beauty Threat: Medium-High

Many nail salons smell, well, fragrant, and not in a good way. The abrasive fumes leached from polishes, hardeners, and acrylics have sparked a growing concern about potential side effects of exposure, ranging from eye irritation to cancer. The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, a worker health and safety advocacy group, identifies three as particularly harmful: formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate, standard chemicals in polish that they dub the “toxic trio.” Formaldehyde, a preservative and hardener, can irritate eyes, nose, and skin. Toluene, a solvent that gives polish its smooth finish, can lead to headaches, nausea, and even nerve damage affecting sight. Dibutyl phthalate, which adds a moisturizing sheen to formulas, is linked to reproductive problems, including miscarriage.

Manicurists who interact with these chemicals daily are most at risk for health issues, notes Berman. Because you only come in contact with the airborne chemicals for a short period of time, “you’ll likely be fine getting a manicure,” says Berman. “But we still don’t know the whole story. So I can’t say it’s completely safe, only to use caution.”

Mani-Pedi Problems

The Fear: You’ll get a nail infection from a mani or pedi.

Beauty Threat: Medium-High

A professional mani-pedi comes with many perks: neat, clean, nails and color that lasts for days with nary a chip. But you can also catch nasty germs like athlete’s foot or other fungal infection, warts, or staph infections such as MRSA if tools are not properly sterilized, says New York City-based podiatrist Johanna Youner, DPM. The biggest threat are callous razors (also called Credo blades), which shave off dry, callused skin on heels during pedicures and are illegal in most states. “They can easily cut skin,” says Dr. Youner, making you susceptible to bacterial infections.

Also be wary of shared emery boards and block buffers, which can’t be easily cleaned. Their porous surface allows them to hold onto and spread fungal infections, says Dr. Taub.

Pedicure Foot Bath Infections

The Fear: You’ll catch an infection from a foot bath.

Beauty Threat: Medium

In 2004, 140 clients in a San Jose, Calif., salon developed a mycobacterial skin infection that left them with sores on their lower legs that took months to heal. A similar outbreak involving 110 patrons was reported at another California salon four years earlier. The source of the infection: dirty foot spas. When they’re not cleaned, they can accumulate biofilm (a combination of skin, hair, lotion, and oil residue), providing an ideal environment for fungal and bacterial growth. If you have diabetes or lupus, or take immune system- suppressing medications like steroids or cancer chemotherapy, you may be at increased risk.

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