The real cost of beauty: The damaging effects of hair treatments

Nicole Bronstein

%no-caption% (leave this alone if you don’t want a caption)

Megan Oechsel sat silently in a chair, submerged in a cloud of fumes.  A woman in a gas mask applied heat to her hair, which released formaldehyde gas, a known carcinogen.  The Keratin treatment was uncomfortable, but more than that, it puts the hairstylist at risk of serious health effects. But when it was all over, Oechsel said it was worth it.

In addition to their high prices, hair treatments such as the Keratin treatment and highlighting can cause damage to the hair and body.

Hair can be damaged if highlighted too often, according to Mill Valley hairstylist Melissa Herst.

“Hair color is a high enough pH that it opens up the outer layer, or cuticle, of the hair, and the hair color penetrates in,” Herst said. “If you continually open it up over and over, it gets blown up and it loses its luster and shine. The more you highlight, the more you can damage it.”

Hair isn’t the only part of the body that can be damaged.

Herst said that she chose not to perform Keratin treatments because the product contains a low percentage of formaldehyde, a chemical that is known to cause cancer.  Frequent exposure to formaldehyde gas can lead to nasal cancer and leukemia.

“I hate the way the stuff smells,” Herst said.  “It burns the eyes, but it also gives me the feeling of ‘I can’t breathe’ when I’ve been near it. Breathing it in doesn’t feel right.”

Herst said that although formaldehyde can also cause the client to experience discomfort in the eyes and throat, the people performing the procedure are the ones who are at risk of serious health effects since the formaldehyde flows more towards them during the process.

“Honestly, as a client, getting it done, probably nothing’s going to happen, except for temporary—eyes burning—stuff like that,” Herst said.  “You’re not going to get a brain tumor from having it done once. But it’s the people who perform the service that there might be a serious side effect of the product.”

Herst said that many people are still eager to get the treatment despite the health risks.

“Customers don’t really care,” Herst said, “I think there’s a large percentage of people who say ‘I don’t care if it has formaldehyde, I want my hair straight.’ And then there’s also a percentage of people that go ‘I don’t know about this, it has formaldehyde.’ So a lot of these people aren’t stopping doing it just because of the formaldehyde, which is a little scary.”

Oechsel said that she was nervous about the health risks when she first got a Keratin treatment.

“The first time I did it, I was a little intimidated by it,” Oechsel said.  “I was like, ‘oh my god, what am I getting myself into?’”

Oechsel said that now she’s used to it, and she’s happy because for her, the treatment was worth it.

According to Herst, some Keratin treatment manufacturers have changed the levels of formaldehyde in their products, but most have done nothing other than adding warning labels to the packages.