With a 2016 EPA grant, the Safe Shops Program expanded their outreach to hair salons, particularly those salons providing services to women of color. Hair salon hazards are both direct occupational hazards and a symptom of environmental/social injustice that must be addressed. Black women's hair in particular is embedded in a context of deep-rooted racism, which continues to this day to exert pressure on black women and girls to straighten or "relax" their hair. According to Black Women for Wellness, Black women spend about $9 billion dollars each year on beauty products, which is twice as much as any other ethnic group.
Reflecting this, many of the hair care products women of color use (such as dues and relaxers) are filled with a mix of harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde, phthalates, phenylenediamine, resorcinol, ammonium hydroxide, hydrogen peroxide, sodium hydroxide, and calcium hydroxide. Both research and women's lived experiences indicate that these chemicals can be harmful to health, especially for those who work with these products every day as a part of their jobs.
For example, research conducted through Brandeis University's Black Hair Salon Study explored workplace-based exposures to chemicals in Black women's hair salons. Along with other partners, the Boston Public Health Commission helped Brandeis students to understand their findings and identify recommendations to salon workers. The students found
that the hair salons they monitored had higher amounts of carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds (chemicals), and particulate matter (tiny particles of pollution) than health guidelines recommend, particularly with the application of heat. Though the students believe that more research should be conducted, they recommend that salon workers:
1, Limit chemical exposure through improved salon ventilation,
2. Replace salon products with other products that do not contain chemicals
3. Limit the use of salon products containing chemicals where no replacements exist, and
4. Wear personal protective equipment such as gloves, masks, aprons, and goggles to protect themselves from chemical exposures when using salon products
Women who use these products, and salon workers in particular, are at a disproportionate risk for poor health effects. Short-term and long-term health concerns include:
- Skin and eye irritation
- Respiratory irritation
- Skin burns
- Headache, dizziness, weakness
- Certain cancers
- Kidney and liver damage
- Skin damage
- Heart disease
- Neurological damage
- Reproductive effects
If you have questions about our work with Boston's hair salons or to learn more about the Safe Shops Program, call 617-534-5965.