As a former hair stylist, our National Organiser Melanie has seen pretty much everything you can imagine in the hair and beauty industry. But one thing that still affects her to this day was her exposure to formaldehyde during her apprenticeship.

To kick off Health and Safety Month this October, she’s sharing her story – one that a few years ago shook the industry to the core.

“In 2011 the ‘Keratin Complex’ smoothing treatment was at an all-time high in the hair industry,” Mel says. “It was very nourishing, anti-frizz, quick to blow dry with little to no hassle for styling.”

It sounded too good to be true – and it was, only people weren’t aware of the dangers at the time. “The salon I was employed with at the time was getting extremely busy with Keratin Complex treatments, to the point that the apprentices were doing clients themselves.”

The process was time-consuming, involving several rounds of blow-drying and straightening, which let off dangerous fumes. Melanie, Joel (pictured) and her co-workers started to notice the smoke made it hard to breathe in the salon. “To fix the issue we would pull open the big glass doors at the front of the shop and hold the back door open that was attached to the laundry for some fresh air,” she says.

But it got worse. Melanie began to suffer allergic conjunctivitis and respiratory problems from exposure to formaldehyde, which is found in the keratin treatment. “I started to wear safety glasses,” she recalls, “but my employer worried as it wasn’t a good look to balaclava up to provide a treatment service for a client.”

The exposure standard for Australian workers for formaldehyde is 1 part per million averaged over eight hours. While Melanie’s salon was never formally tested, the symptoms she and her workmates experienced suggests exposure was well above the legal limits.

Regular clients also became affected by the treatment. “We would get a damp towel to provide them assistance with the fumes to help cover their faces and breathe easily.”

At this point, Melanie’s employer realised something wasn’t quite right, and stopped using the treatment. Later on that year, a huge list of keratin products containing formaldehyde were recalled by the ACCC and the media began to warn people of the danger involving keratin treatments.

Formaldehyde has significant short-term and long-term risks. As well issues Melanie experienced, extended exposure to formaldehyde has been linked to cancer and infertility. The World Health Organisation considers it a Group 1 Carcinogen, the highest level of risk. This was a product that was, at the peak of its popularity, available in nearly every salon across Australia.

Stories of nosebleeds and clients needing medical treatment are in the past, but it highlights how poorly-equipped the hair and beauty industry is around health and safety standards. Many clients and stylists have no idea what’s really in the products on offer, and most don’t think to ask. Some keratin treatments on salon shelves still contain the dangerous chemical, which Melanie finds concerning.

“Most products are saying once diluted with water it’s safe to use because it breaks the compound down,” she says, “but at the end of the day, it still contains formaldehyde, which is a poison to our bodies and health.”

On any given day, a hair stylist can be exposed to a number of potentially dangerous chemicals. If you’re concerned about hair colours, treatments, or other products that you deal with, don’t run the risk. Take a photo of the ingredients list and check out https://www.productsafety.gov.au/ to see if there are any warnings or exposure standards that you need to worry about.

And if you are being exposed to something that is potentially dangerous, stop using it immediately. Talk to your employer, and if they’re ignoring or dismissing the risk, that’s where HSA can step in. We’ve got a team of legal officers experienced in health and safety issues across a number of Australian industries who know their stuff.

It’s time to #demandrespect when it comes to health and safety in the salon. Stylists shouldn’t run the risk of dangerous chemicals, employers need to be more aware of what they’re stocking, and the industry as a whole needs to do more about regulating products. Changing everyone’s attitudes will take a lot of work, but salon by salon, we know we can make real change if we stick together. 

For Melanie, the message is clear. “No extent of vanity is worth yours or your client’s life.”