New York: Reducing Unhealthy Chemical Exposures for Salon Workers

The New York State Department of Health (NYS DOH) certifies more than 25,000 licensed hair stylists and salons in the state. Reports began to emerge about stylists experiencing respiratory distress from exposure to certain keratin hair straighteners that contained formaldehyde, a chemical linked to leukemia and cancers of the nasal passages and upper throat. During application, stylists were breathing in the formaldehyde released throughout the straightening process. NYS DOH received reports of acute and longer-term health effects among salon workers, including burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat; skin irritation; difficulty breathing; and long-term lung problems. Many of these keratin products, touted as “formaldehyde-free” or “containing no harsh chemicals,” had incorrect or misleading labels. Important measures were needed to educate salon workers, correct product mislabeling and content omissions, and track ongoing health problems. NYS DOH used Preventive Health and Health Services (PHHS) Block Grant funds to search scientific papers about the health risks of formaldehyde-containing products and to create a health alert for beauty salon owners and stylists. With more than 150 hair-straightening products on the market, even a partial list of formaldehyde-containing products would help warn stylists so they could limit their exposure to this chemical.

During a four-year period, an average of 42,000 alerts were sent to all licensed stylists with their annual license renewal notifications and to students applying for a license. In addition, salon workers who experienced formaldehyde exposure received clinical support from state occupational health clinics. Salon workers were encouraged to repor­t any adverse experiences to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and hundreds of formaldehyde exposure cases were reported. In response to this increased awareness, the NYS DOH commissioner asked the FDA to review the safety concerns associated with using keratin hair straighteners and to initiate a ban on the products. NYS DOH collaborated with the New York attorney general to identify instances of misbranding of keratin hair straighteners sold in the state. This review resulted in product investigations, closed operations, and changes in chemical formulas.

Because of the NYS DOH efforts, salon workers’ exposure to formaldehyde was reduced or eliminated. With PHHS Block Grant support, licensed New York State beauty salons, salon workers, and beauty school students applying for a license are now aware of the health risks of formaldehyde exposure.

Story year: 2017

Hairdresser washes woman’s hair.

New York used PHHS Block Grant funding to educate salon workers about the health risks associated with keratin hair straighteners containing formaldehyde.

Check out previous PHHS Block Grant success stories from New York

Page last reviewed: October 11, 2018