Stylist Michele Ortiz has no plans to get rid of her personal protective equipment, even as Covid-19 protocols are rescinded in California and other states. “I would love to see hairdressers wearing their masks even after the pandemic, whenever all of this subsides,” Ortiz says.
For years, the California hairstylist experienced nosebleeds, lightheadedness, hot flashes, and rosacea as a result of the harsh chemicals used in hair color services. But now she refuses to use such chemicals, and after arriving for work at Phenix Salon Suites in Santa Barbara, she dons a mask, rubber gloves, and a face shield, and switches on an air purifier to counteract the chemicals used by a coworker. She feels safer this way, and not just from the virus.
“I would love to see hairdressers wearing their masks even after the pandemic”
Workers across the cosmetology industry, including spa, hair, and nail salon employees, have expressed workplace safety concerns before and during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to complaints filed by cosmetology workers to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) between January 2015 and July 2020 — obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests in partnership with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and then shared with Vox — exposure to these chemicals, especially in salons with poor ventilation or whose owners failed to provide PPE, resulted in burning eyes, breathing problems, rashes, and more.
Now that salons have reopened and the CDC updated its guidelines to say fully vaccinated people can resume activities without practicing social distancing or wearing masks, cosmetology workers must navigate both the immediate threat of Covid-19 and the ongoing risks of cosmetic chemical exposures.
“Employees are exposed to the hair straightening products without proper ventilation, causing eye blisters and respiratory problems,” one OSHA complaint reads. “Employees are exposed to chemical fumes and are having trouble breathing,” reads another. “Employees are not provided with personal protective equipment.”
Potentially hazardous working conditions were already in place when the deadliest pandemic in a century landed in the US. Covid-19 left salon owners and workers facing the immediate health risks of a deadly airborne disease that required social distancing, forcing salons to upend their practices as shifting regulations left them open and shut. It also exacerbated the economic issues already confronting salon employees, often women of color, working without safety nets. As people in various industries assess the harsh working conditions of their employment, some salon workers are examining the risks that have been part of their jobs all along.
The health hazards associated with cosmetic chemicals are well-documented. Alexandra Flamm, assistant professor of dermatology at Penn State University, says her cosmetologist patients often suffer from contact dermatitis, “an itchy rash in the eczema family.”
Exposure to sprays and other personal care products make the eyes vulnerable to irritation or infection, adds Barbara Horn, immediate past president of the American Optometric Association Board of Trustees, and irritants landing directly on the eye can potentially cause keratitis, a condition the American Association of Ophthalmology defines as an “open sore on the cornea.”
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