The health and environmental impacts of styling products

Dear EarthTalk: I’m a hair stylist and am wondering about the health and environmental impacts of the styling products I use every day on my customers. Millions of people around the world use shampoos, conditioners and dyes on their hair regularly without any discernable harm. But recent studies have linked some of the ingredients in these products to various human health problems, so hair care professionals and consumers are well advised to know their options. Traditional shampoos and conditioners, the most commonly used hair care products, contain a synthetic detergent called Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), which generates a sudsy lather. But SLS can dry the scalp, stripping the skin’s surface of its protective lipids. It can also cause follicle damage, hair loss, skin and eye irritation, and allergic reactions such as rashes and hives. Other problematic chemicals in most mainstream shampoos and conditioners are parabens—sometimes listed as methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben or butylparaben—which are added as preservatives to ward off mold and mildew. Morris Shriftman, Senior Vice President with Avalon Organics, says that these chemicals are dangerous because they accumulate in the bloodstream where they can “mimic” naturally-occurring hormones like estrogen, and disrupt human endocrine function accordingly. Parabens are also of particular concern to oncologists, who report finding the chemicals in breast cancer cells. Luckily, a number of manufacturers make available shampoos and conditioners free of SLS and parabens, making it easier for stylists and customers alike to do the right thing. Aveda, Avalon Organics, Aubrey Organics, Dessert Essence Organics, Jason Natural Products and Simply Organic, among many others, use organic herbal extracts to do the jobs normally associated with synthetic chemicals. These products are readily available at natural foods markets and increasingly in mainstream supermarkets. Studies trying to prove links between hair dyes and cancer or birth defects have turned up mostly inconclusive results, although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) National Center for Toxicological Research found that the majority of off-the-shelf hair dyes for black, red and blonde hair contain a known carcinogen, 4-ABP. Also, according to the FDA, some consumers have reported burning, redness, itching and swelling of the face from hair dyes, as well as hair loss and difficulty breathing. The FDA does not regulate hair products, but John Bailey, director of the agency’s color and cosmetics program, cautions consumers to “consider the lack of demonstrated safety” when considering a hair dye. Most natural health care experts agree that going without hair dye altogether is the safest route. Hair color professionals should wear heavy plastic gloves and a mask to protect against fumes, and should schedule their color work with lots of breaks between applications to limit exposure. Consumers, when possible, should shop around for less toxic, all-natural coloring agents. Many of the companies listed above also make all-natural hair colorings; other popular brands include EcoColors, Naturtint, and Clairol’s Castings line. Hennas, which are available in most salons, are also a good safe, non-permanent option. CONTACTS: FDA Office of Cosmetics and Colors, . GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: , or e-mail: earthtalk @ emagazine.com.