Published: April 2011

Salon workers at risk

Many salon owners might be surprised to learn that hair straighteners regularly handled by their employees contain sizeable quantities of formaldehyde, a hazardous chemical whose gaseous form, the federal government concludes, is “reasonably expected to be a human carcinogen.”

The formaldehyde content of at least 11 brands of hair straighteners exceeds 1 percent. Customers’ scalps may be coated with these solutions for at least 30 minutes, but, since workplace laws cover only employees, consumer exposure to formaldehyde is unregulated. But salon workers are protected under federal law, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration has signaled its intention to enforce workplace formaldehyde safety limits in its April 11, 2011, Hazard Alert to salons (OSHA 2011).

New OSHA salon tests have detected formaldehyde vapor levels exceeding federal standards (OSHA 2011). Tests by state health agencies and companies have detected significant vapor levels in salons using Brazilian Blowout, Cadiveu and Trichovedic hair straighteners (OOSHA 2010, Brazilian Blowout 2010A, Cadiveu 2010A, Trichovedic 2011).

OSHA’s hazard alert notifies salon owners that they must comply with federal law in one of two ways:

  • Test air, train employees and install showers and eye wash stations.
  • Abandon formaldehyde-based hair straighteners.

When formaldehyde exposures reach those indicated in published salon air tests, federal workplace standards mandate a broad range of actions to protect stylists and other salon workers from this hazardous gas.


How can a salon owner or employee find out how much formaldehyde vapor is in the air?

A salon owner can contact the state occupational safety and health agency for recommended, qualified private laboratories.


How do you learn how much formaldehyde is in your salon’s hair straightener brand?

Salon owners or employees may not get a straight answer when they ask manufacturers about their hair straightening products’ formaldehyde content. EWG’s investigation has found that many companies give out misleading information about formaldehyde in their products. Look up your product in EWG’s database to learn if it has been tested. If not, we recommend you submit the product for testing at any private laboratory that can run EPA Method 8315. EWG recommends air testing even if you don’t find formaldehyde in products, since some non-formaldehyde formulations release it when they are heated.


What are common symptoms of formaldehyde exposure?

Common adverse effects include eye, nose and throat irritation, breathing difficulties, headache, and allergic skin conditions or dermatitis. [See all health reports on file with the Food and Drug Administration.]


What can a salon employee do about health problems from formaldehyde?

Owners are required to test salon air if an employee reports symptoms. An owner must notify employees within 15 days of receiving results. Employees can report reactions and other adverse health effects to the state occupational safety and health agency and can request to remain anonymous. The agency will follow up with the employer.


How do I know if my salon is following the regulations?

The table below details federal formaldehyde regulations and lists the chance your salon exceeds the relevant limits based on all published salon air tests. Your state may have additional workplace standards for formaldehyde.


Table: Federal regulations for protecting workers from formaldehyde

Formaldehyde level
8-hour average air concentration at the salon
(ppm = parts per million)
In the products used by the salon
Any level 0.1 ppm & higher 0.5 ppm & higher 0.75 ppm & higher more than 0.1% more than 1%
Chance that your salon exceeds this level: *
1 treatment in 8 hours 100% 9% - -
2 treatments in 8 hours 100% 45% 9% -
4 treatments in 8 hours 100% 73% 9% 9%
6 treatments in 8 hours 100% 73% 27% 9%
8 treatments in 8 hours 100% 91% 27% 18%
OSHA Requirements at this level:
  • Prompt exposure testing (air tests) for workers reporting symptoms.
  • Notification of employees of air testing results within 15 days of receipt.
  • Regular visual inspection of products to detect leaks.
  • Equipment for containing spills.
  • Storage area and warning labels for areas used to ventilate, clean, or store contaminated equipment.
  • Air testing for all exposed workers, symptomatic or not. Testing at least twice to check if amounts are under permissible limits. (Required of all salons unless salon can prove this air concentration exceed 0.5 ppm)
Annual safety training.
Medical surveillance for workers reporting symptoms.
Medical surveillance for all employees exposed at or above this limit.
A written hazard communication program and updated worker safety information (Material Safety Data Sheets).
Product labels that list formaldehyde and where to find hazard information.
Product labels that indicates respiratory sensitization hazard and “Potential Cancer Hazard.”
Engineering controls and work practices to reduce levels below 0.75 ppm.
Respirators if levels remain above 0.75 ppm.
A warning at all thresholds and doors, and restriction of access to people trained to recognize the hazards of formaldehyde:DANGER FORMALDEHYDE IRRITANT AND POTENTIAL CANCER HAZARD AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
Eye-wash station for emergency use if solution splashes into eyes.
Quick-drench shower for immediate use if solution splashes on skin.


* Based on calculated 8-hour averages using the sample data from 11 salons. Each successive treatment was assumed to emit formaldehyde at the same level and for the same duration as was measured for a single treatment.

Salon workers and their clients typically inhale formaldehyde vapor for a full 90-minute process.

A client might undergo the service just once every 12 weeks. But an efficient stylist might handle two or three sessions a day, multiple days a week. The stylist’s exposures to formaldehyde fumes could be intense, long-lasting and frequent.

Formaldehyde vapors peak when hair is heated. Typically, a salon worker blow-dries and straightens every section of hair multiple times with a flat iron heated to 450 degrees.

Many federal agencies have issued recommendations for maximum formaldehyde exposure. These include the Department of Homeland Security, Consumer Product Safety Commission, Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Mine Safety and Health Administration, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, American Conference of Industrial Hygienists and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NTP 2010).

Only those regulations issued by OSHA carry the force of law. They are less restrictive than all other agencies’ health-based guidance, which are strictly voluntary.


Formaldehyde Testing in 11 Salons

Testing organization and sample number Reported (calculated) 8-hour average (ppm formaldehyde in air) Calculated 8-hour average assuming 3 treatments (ppm formaldehyde in air) Testing Details Reference
1 Oregan OSHA Sample # 1 0.33 0.99 1 client served during 114 minute air test found 1.39 ppm on average. OOSHA 2010B
2 Oregan OSHA Sample # 2 0.08 0.23 1 client served during 45 minute air test found 0.805 ppm on average. OOSHA 2010B
3 Oregan OSHA Sample # 3 0.04 0.11 1 client served during 76 minute air test found 0.219 ppm on average. OOSHA 2010B
4 Oregan OSHA Sample # 4 0.05 0.15 1 client served during 66 minute air test found 0.369 ppm on average. OOSHA 2010B
5 Oregan OSHA Sample # 5 0.01 0.02 1 client served during 32 minute air test found 0.092 ppm on average. OOSHA 2010B
6 Oregan OSHA Sample # 6 0.01 0.04 1 client served during 45 minute air test found 0.144 ppm on average. OOSHA 2010B
7 Oregan OSHA Sample # 7 0.05 0.15 1 client served during 94 minute air test found 0.255 ppm on average. OOSHA 2010B
8 Brazilian Blowout Sample # 1 0.06 0.10 2 clients served during the testing period. Brazilian Blowout 2010A
9 Brazilian Blowout Sample # 2 0.07 0.11 2 clients served during the testing period. Brazilian Blowout 2010A
10 Cadiveu 0.10 0.29 1 client served during the testing period. Cadiveu 2010A
11 Trichovedic 0.03 0.04 2 clients served during 96 minute air test found 0.147 ppm on average. Trichovedic 2011

Source: EWG compilation of test results (Brazilian Blowout 2010A, Cadiveu 2010A, Oregon OSHA 2010B, Trichovedic 2011A, Trichovedic 2011B).