Utah salon owner takes lead in reducing exposure to hazardous hair treatment

Local News

“Women are obsessed with it!” says Steven Robertson, co-owner of 1-Salon in Millcreek, Utah.

It’s a treatment women cannot say enough about. The option to transform thick and frizzy hair to silky, straight, and manageable all in one sitting, women are calling it “life-changing.”

It’s called the keratin hair-smoothing treatment, a service salons have been offering for nearly a decade.

Kyla Vigil sat through her first keratin treatment and said afterward while combing through her hair, “I want my hair to look like this all the time, but it’s such a hassle for me to get it to be this way every day on my own.”

Kyla says the treatment was worth it even after we discussed the chemicals she was about to be exposed to.

Listed on the bottle of a popular keratin treatment branded the Brazilian Blowout, the first ingredient, water, the second ingredient, methylene glycol. What is methylene glycol?

“It’s a nasty toxin,” explains Dale Keller, Environment Health Manager with Salt Lake County Health Department.

Keller says frequent exposure to the chemical can have negative short-term and long-term health effects. Explaining, “Most keratin treatments are labeled formaldehyde-free, which is the case, but they often have a sister compound called methylene glycol. When methylene glycol is heated, as it’s instructed to be, it off-gases as formaldehyde. So, I think it has a labeling conundrum because when its used as it’s supposed to be used, it releases formaldehyde.” Keller goes on to say, “Formaldehyde has been linked by NIOSH to cancer in a handful of studies, specifically blood cancer or leukemia.”

In the keratin treatment, the stylists washes the client’s hair with a special shampoo, then applies the chemical treatment, blow-dries the hair with heat, then finishes the treatment with a straight iron heated to 450 degrees. That’s when the product is set and sealed.

“That formaldehyde becomes a problem when you inhale it. You inhale it when you heat it up. When you blow dry and straighten the hair the fumes look like they’re dissipating, but it fills the air like the inversion does the valley. It sticks.”

According to OSHA, acute side effects of formaldehyde gas include, burning eyes and throat, skin irritations, nose bleeds, and even asthma attacks.

Annie Moscon pays hundreds of dollars to get the treatment at least a couple of times a year, she says, “My eyes water, I get pretty irritated. My nose burns. The fumes are strong as you inhale them over and over again, especially because your hair is so close to your face. It gets all up in your sinuses and eyes and effects that whole area!” But she adds, “I would suffer through two hours of that to keep my hair looking the way it does.”

Moscon does wear a construction grade protective mask during the treatment to help reduce the exposure and side effects saying she’s even seen women wear a gas mask during the service before.

Studies by the American Cancer Society reveal the serious risk, “Professional keratin hair-smoothing treatments can raise indoor air concentrations of formaldehyde to levels that could be a potential hazard.”

But despite all the science that spells out the risks of the chemicals used in keratin treatments, they are hardly regulated in Utah.

OSHA does recommend a salon test their air during a treatment and if formaldehyde levels reach a certain level then the employer must make some changes. Changes including install air ventilation systems or post signs at entryways alerting clients of the exposure.

Robertson, again a longtime hair stylist and Utah salon owner, says the recommendations are rarely if ever happening in salons.

“Nobody regulates this, you don’t have to put the services in a separate room, but it is clearly a problem. I’ve worked in a salon where the whole building was windows and when a client came in for a keratin treatment, we opened every window and it still filled up with a chemical fog.”

Picture that, a salon filled with the formaldehyde smog which means it’s exposing the entire salon, clients and stylists alike to the toxic chemicals.

“I don’t think it’s fair to the other clients or fair to other stylists either. I’ve seen pregnant people exposed to it without knowing, and I’ve seen pregnant stylists applying it,” Robertson said. 

The CDC warning on their website, “Working with formaldehyde could increase your chances of having fertility problems or even miscarriage.”

Robertson describing, “It’s not like they walked up to the client and asked permission to do the treatment around you. It’s just happening without their permission!”

1-Salon hair stylist Denise Gorst says when she was pregnant, she always left the room during keratin treatments, “I would step away every time for the sake of the baby.”

This is one reason why when Robertson decided to open his own salon in Millcreek, he created a closed off room entirely separate from the salon floor specifically for keratin treatments.

“We realize there are clients that benefit from it. We don’t want to take that service away from them, we just want to separate it. We think it should be separated,” Robertson explains. This way the stylists are only exposed to it when their clients specifically request it. “I feel like it should be an expectation of a salon that if you can’t separate keratin smoothing treatments in your space then you shouldn’t offer it as a service. If you’re not keeping people safe, I don’t feel like it’s worth it. There are other ways to make money, a salon doesn’t have to offer the service. Safety should be more important.”

In the meantime, until more regulation is written, Robertson says he hopes more salons will take the lead too and separate the service from the main salon floor.

The Salt Lake County Health Department admitting that they were not aware of the hazard happening in salons because they haven’t received any complaints on the matter. But as a result of ABC4’s questions and report the SL County Health Department says it has taken action on the matter. The team has compiled a list of products that contain formaldehyde and like substitutes and plan to share it with the more than 1,200 salons they inspect regularly. Additionally, the health department says it will compile a list of “Best Management Practices” to share with the salons who chose to use these products. One suggestion is to offer the service in a separate room just like Robertson at 1-Salon. 

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