Hair Salons: Facts about Formaldehyde in Hair Products
OSHA has found that some hair smoothing products may contain formaldehyde, may release formaldehyde at levels above OSHA's permissible limits during use, and may be mislabeled, all of which can pose health risks to salon workers. Salons and other employers, such as beauty schools, that use hair smoothing products that contain or may release formaldehyde must follow the requirements in OSHA's formaldehyde and hazard communication standards.
OSHA measured unsafe levels of formaldehyde in the air at three salons using specific products and issued citations to the salon owners for failing to protect workers from over exposure to formaldehyde. OSHA also issued citations and fines to salons and other employers (e.g., beauty schools) for using products that contained or could release formaldehyde and failing to follow the requirements in OSHA's formaldehyde standard (e.g., testing the air to determine formaldehyde levels, providing protective equipment, providing training). In addition, OSHA tested and found formaldehyde in several products that were labeled "formaldehyde free" or did not list formaldehyde on the label. OSHA cited the manufacturers and distributors of these products for incorrectly labeling the products.
While this webpage highlights information and data that OSHA has on formaldehyde in hair smoothing products, other products used in the salon may also contain or release formaldehyde. The information on this webpage applies all salon products that contain or may release formaldehyde. Salon owners, stylists, and other salon workers have the right know what is in the products that they are buying and using and how to protect their workers and themselves from formaldehyde exposure. If salon owners decide to use products that contain or could release formaldehyde, then they must follow the requirements in OSHA's formaldehyde and hazard communication standards. This webpage provides information on:
- Formaldehyde Levels Found in Hair Salons
- Health Risks of Formaldehyde
- How to Know if Products Contain or Release Formaldehyde
- Protecting Worker Health: What OSHA Requires
- How OSHA Can Help
Formaldehyde Levels Found in Hair Salons
Hair products may contain or release a chemical called formaldehyde. In 2011, Federal OSHA found that stylists in three salons using either Brazilian Blowout Acai Professional Smoothing Solution or Cadiveu Brasil Cacau were exposed to formaldehyde above OSHA's 15-minute short term exposure limit (STEL) of 2 parts formaldehyde per million parts air (ppm), putting their health at risk (see graphic). In one salon, formaldehyde levels during the blow drying phase of treatment were measured at five times the OSHA STEL. All three salons were issued OSHA citations and two were issued fines for failing to protect workers from the health risks of formaldehyde. In addition, OSHA issued citations and fines to other salons using products that contained or could release formaldehyde because they did not follow the requirements in OSHA's formaldehyde standard to test the air to determine formaldehyde levels and to provide workers training and information on the health hazards and signs and symptoms of exposure to formaldehyde. Federal OSHA issued additional citations to 37 salons (including beauty schools) and 9 distributors/manufacturers in fiscal years (FY) 2011 and 2012.
Based on air testing and product sampling, OSHA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), California OSHA (PDF), and the California Department of Public Health have all issued warnings and/or citations to smoothing product manufacturers for violating rules for formaldehyde labeling. Oregon OSHA (PDF) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (PDF) (NIOSH) have also found that certain hair smoothing products contain or release formaldehyde. The Connecticut Department of Public Health, New York State Health Department (PDF), and Health Canada have also issued health warnings to salons and consumers about formaldehyde in hair smoothing products.
For more information about the emerging issue of formaldehyde exposure from hair products, visit the following pages:
- OSHA's Hazard Alert, Hair Smoothing Products that Could Contain Formaldehyde
- Government Response, which details actions OSHA and other agencies have taken
- More Information, which provides links to OSHA resources, other government resources, and news articles regarding formaldehyde in hair smoothing products.
Health Risks of Formaldehyde
In June 2011, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review's Expert Panel revised its Tentative Amended Safety Assessment for formaldehyde and methylene glycol. The revised assessment states, in part, that "formaldehyde and methylene glycol are unsafe for use in hair smoothing products, the use of which involves application of high temperatures."
If you work with hair products that contain formaldehyde, you can be exposed to the chemical by:
- Breathing it in through your nose and mouth
- Getting it on your skin
- Getting it in your eyes or mouth
Formaldehyde is a known cancer-causing substance. Exposure to formaldehyde can also cause:
- Eye irritation and damage, including blindness.
- Nose irritation, including bloody noses.
- Skin sensitivity, rashes, and itching.
- Breathing difficulties, such as coughing and wheezing.
Levels of formaldehyde above 0.1 ppm in the air can irritate your nose, throat, and lungs. These symptoms will get worse as formaldehyde levels go up.
How to Know if Products Contain or Release Formaldehyde
Formaldehyde is a strong-smelling gas used in many products. Hair products may have formaldehyde dissolved (and chemically reacted) in water and often the reacted formaldehyde is called methylene glycol.
Even smoothing products that do not list formaldehyde on the label, or that claim to be "formaldehyde free" or "no formaldehyde," can still expose workers to formaldehyde. Some products violate regulations by not listing their formaldehyde content on the label, and some contain other substances that can release formaldehyde during use, typically when the product is heated, such as during flat-ironing or blow-drying.
Under OSHA standards, all of these substances are subject to the same rules as formaldehyde. When they are present in products above certain levels, OSHA requires formaldehyde hazards to be listed on labels and in material safety data sheets (MSDSs), documents that explain the health hazards of products that contain hazardous chemicals and the recommended safe practices for working with them. OSHA has cited several manufacturers and distributors for incorrectly labeling their products "formaldehyde-free" or by not including formaldehyde on the label when it was in the product.
OSHA has identified several brand-name products that contain formaldehyde or that can expose you to formaldehyde during use, even though they may not list formaldehyde on their labels or MSDSs:
- Acai Professional Smoothing Solution (FDA Warning Letter)
- Professional Brazilian Blowout Solution
- Brasil Cacau
- Acai Therapy
- Keratin Complex Smoothing Therapy
- Natural Keratin Smoothing Treatment
- Natural Keratin Smoothing Treatment Blonde
- Express Blow Out
- Brazilian Keratin Treatment
- Advanced Brazilian Keratin Treatment
- Chocolate Extreme De-Frizzing Treatment
- Soft Gentle Smoothing Treatment
- Soft Chocolate Gentle Smoothing Treatment
For more information on identifying formaldehyde in hair smoothing products, visit the Formaldehyde in Your Products page.
Protecting Worker Health: What OSHA Requires
When possible, salon owners, beauty schools, and workers should avoid using products containing formaldehyde, methylene glycol, other ingredients that are treated as formaldehyde under OSHA regulations. Hair product companies are now making and selling products that they claim do not contain formaldehyde in the solution. Choosing one of these products can help to reduce the risk of exposure to formaldehyde. Check the labels or MSDSs to see what chemicals products contain, but remember companies do not always properly list formaldehyde on labels.
If salon owners decide to use products that may contain or release formaldehyde, then they must follow the requirements in OSHA's formaldehyde and hazard communication standards to protect worker safety. Requirements include steps such as testing salon air during treatments to determine formaldehyde levels, providing adequate ventilation and appropriate personal protective equipment for workers performing treatments, and training workers on the hazards of formaldehyde. Failure to follow the requirements of the formaldehyde and hazard communication standards has consequences. In FY2011 and FY2012, Federal OSHA issued citations to 40 salons (including beauty schools) and 9 distributors/manufacturers with fines as high as $17,500 for failing to protect workers from over exposure and potential exposures to formaldehyde, including:
- Failure to protect workers from over exposures to formaldehyde,
- Failure to protect workers from possible exposure to formaldehyde, and
- Failure to provide workers with information about other hazardous chemicals, besides formaldehyde.
Salon workers should also be familiar with the contents of the products they use, the hazards those products present, and the steps they can take to help reduce their exposure to formaldehyde, such as wearing protective equipment and properly cleaning up spills.
Salon owners and workers can request the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, at no cost, to help identify and correct any health hazard in the workplace through its Health Hazard Evaluation Program. Contact NIOSH at 1-800-CDC-INFO [1-800-232-4636].
For more information on salon and beauty school owner responsibilities and safety tips for workers, visit the Protecting Worker Health page.
In October 2011, the consulting firm ChemRisk, LLC published a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene that also found that some hair-smoothing products, including some labeled formaldehyde-free, contain formaldehyde and could expose workers and customers to formaldehyde at levels above OSHA's short term exposure limit (STEL). ChemRisk's tests showed that Brazilian Blowout Acai Professional Smoothing Solution contained 11.5% formaldehyde, Global Keratin Juvexin Optimized Functional Keratin contained 8.3% formaldehyde, and Coppola Keratin Complex Blonde Formula contained 3% formaldehyde. Of these, only Global Keratin lists formaldehyde on its label. However, the Global Keratin label indicated it contained less than 4% formaldehyde, less than half of what was found in the product during testing. ChemRisk also tested the air while a stylist performed a simulated treatment process using each product. Formaldehyde was found in the air during all three simulations. During the simulation with Brazilian Blowout Acai Professional Smoothing Solution, formaldehyde levels were above OSHA's 15-minute STEL during blow drying.
Bottles of Brazilian Blowout Acai Smoothing Solution and Brazilian Blowout Professional Smoothing Solution must have "CAUTION" stickers on the bottles to warn users of potential exposure to formaldehyde gas and the need for precautionary measures. Formaldehyde or methylene glycol must also be prominently identified in an ingredient list on the bottle. These actions are part of a settlement reached between the distributor, GIB LLC, and the State of California that was announced on January 30, 2012.
How do I find out about employer responsibilities and workers' rights?
Workers have a right to a safe workplace. The law requires employers to provide their employees with safe and healthful workplaces. The OSHA law also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for exercising their rights under the law (including the right to raise a health and safety concern or report an injury). For more information see www.whistleblowers.gov or Workers' rights under the OSH Act.
OSHA can help answer questions or concerns from employers and workers. To reach your regional or area OSHA office, go to the OSHA Offices by State webpage or call 1-800-321-OSHA (6742).
Small business employers may contact OSHA's free and confidential On-site Consultation program to help determine whether there are hazards at their worksites and work with OSHA on correcting any identified hazards. Consultants in this program from state agencies or universities work with employers to identify workplace hazards, provide advice on compliance with OSHA standards, and assist in establishing injury and illness prevention programs. On-site Consultation services are separate from enforcement activities and do not result in penalties or citations. To contact OSHA's free consultation service, go to OSHA's On-site Consultation web page or call 1-800-321-OSHA (6742) and press number 4.
Workers may file a complaint to have OSHA inspect their workplace if they believe that their employer is not following OSHA standards or that there are serious hazards. Workers can file a complaint with OSHA by calling 1-800-321-OSHA (6742), online via eComplaint Form, or by printing the complaint form and mailing or faxing it to the local OSHA area office. Complaints that are signed by a worker are more likely to result in an inspection.
If you think your job is unsafe or if you have questions, contact OSHA at 1-800-321-OSHA (6742). Your contact will be kept confidential. We can help. For other valuable worker protection information, such as Workers' Rights, Employer Responsibilities, and other services OSHA offers, visit OSHA's Workers' page.
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