You make your jobs look easy. You put on smiles, exude graciousness and hospitality, and make clients feel like the center of the universe. But your job is far from easy. Being a hairdresser is a difficult career path, and in fact, it’s downright dangerous with painful and poisonous health problems facing your body and mind.
Kristina Welzein, owner of Wabi Sabi Beauty in San Francisco has made the issue of what hairdressing does to your body the centerpiece of her business. “Caring for other people and ignoring your own health day-to-day is a big red flag,” she states. “Not being in a good state of health, mentally, emotionally, and physically will impact the work and the relationships with your clients.”
LEGS & FEET
What kind of floor are you working on? Concrete is chic but challenging; tile is durable but demanding. Any floor that has some spring – like wood built to float above a concrete foundation – is far easier on the body. In any case, your choice of footwear could save you a lot of pain and trouble. “Flooring is huge,” says Kristina, who softened her concrete floors with padded mats that offer “extra support for our legs and hips.”
ARMS & HANDS
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) is the compression of the median nerve at the wrist resulting in numbness, tingling, weakness, or muscle atrophy in the hand and fingers. Women are three times more likely than men to suffer from CTS. For some women, symptoms flare up during pregnancy and menopause. Aging is also a risk factor. CTS and repetitive motion injuries can also cause serious pain and problems all the way up the arms, shoulders, and neck.
CTS and repetitive motion injuries can also cause serious pain and problems all the way up the arms, shoulders, and neck.
To treat CTS, a doctor might start by prescribing anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen. To relieve pressure on the nerve and reduce swelling, diuretic pills, lidocaine injections, and prednisone might be tried. Some studies indicate that vitamin B6 supplements also might relieve symptoms. A physical therapist might be brought in to teach targeted exercises.
Among alternative therapies, yoga alone has been shown to diminish symptoms. “Acupuncture and chiropractic care have benefited some patients, but their effectiveness remains unproven,” states the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “An exception is yoga, which has been shown to reduce pain and improve grip strength among patients with carpal tunnel syndrome.”
Wearing a brace can stabilize the wrist and reduce pain and pressure on the median nerve, especially if worn to sleep, but it also can strain the tendons in the hand. You might be able to wear a splint for a while and gradually exercise your hand and wrist back to health and strength.
A chronic condition lasting more than six months tends to require surgery. Pain is usually relieved immediately, although a full recovery can take months and require physical therapy to restore strength and range of motion.
“The type of tools, their weight, and the hand and arm positions are all very, very important, says Kristina. A recommendation: “Practice working with both your left and your right hand to balance out the body.”
TRY THIS HAND STRETCH:
- Place fingers on the edge of a table.
- Gently push down, stretching the muscles of the fingers.
- Drop your elbows and push again to stretch the wrist muscles.
- Repeat three times and hold for 3-4 seconds each.
- Return hands to normal position, and then place your thumb on the edge of the table.
- Gently push down, and roll your thumb from side to side to stretch the muscles.
A BETTER BODY
The best prevention for this kind of chronic wear and tear is precise body positioning and cultivating fluidity when moving around a client. Efficient, integrated movement helps stylists minimize or prevent stress, goes a long way toward a longer career, and actually helps you do better work. “Make sure that the knees are slightly bent, not locked, and balance your weight from one side of the body to the other so both hips are in use,” recommends Kristina. Here are more actions to consider:
- Move. Do not stand in place for more than thirty minutes without walking around
- Stretch. Between clients, do hamstring, calf and toe stretches. Buy a rubber ball and squeeze it. Work out. Develop a disciplined strength-building (and stretching) routine. Hit the gym three times a week.
- Hydrate. Drinking lots of water during work hours helps (some experts recommend up to 3 liters per day).
- Change Hands. You’ll be surprised how much you can do when you get used to using your non-dominant hand.
- Nourish. There are many natural foods that deliver anti-inflammatory agents, including leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, heart-healthy fats, or turmeric, green tea, garlic, ginger, pepper, and blueberries. Avoid foods that trigger your immune response – top offenders include sugar, gluten, and highly processed oils.
- Get Therapy. Get regular massages and ask for extra stretches. Consider visiting an osteopath or chiropractor monthly to ensure structural alignment.
Nackie Karcher, owner of The Karcher in Brooklyn, New York, believes that some structural issues can be traced to the effort of pumping hydraulic chairs. “We use regular chairs for clients, and the stools that our stylists use go up and down instead, she explains. “I’ve been working like that for a long time, and I think it has significantly saved my body from complete burnout. Most of the staff agrees, but it can be an adjustment.”
Efficient, integrated movement helps stylists minimize or prevent stress, goes a long way toward a longer career, and actually helps you do better work.
Shampoo bowls can also be a source of strain. “We have bowls that you’re able to stand behind,” explains Kristina. “We can hold the spine more upright versus hunching over. That was a huge game changer for me.”
“Awareness is always a good start,” Nackie continues. “I am seeing a movement in the hair world that is finally appearing above ground.” To that we say: It’s about time. Her go-to treatments when body problems arise? “Cranial Sacral work, Visceral Manipulation, Theta healing, Crystals, Pilates, Gentle Yoga, Swimming, and Acupuncture.” Take your pick, but take action of some kind.
LUNGS & SKIN
In America, there are 156 chemicals used in beauty products that are 100% illegal in Australia and Europe. Every day, stylists are exposed to chemicals in hair dyes, keratin treatments, perms, and more. Exposure in small amounts may be innocuous, but health risks can be directly attributed to the compounding effects of consistent chemical exposure.
Constant handling of chemicals during the shampooing process – classified as “wet work” because the hands remain wet or moist for a long period of time – can reduce the skin’s natural barrier and allow greater absorption of chemicals.
As Bay Area hairdresser Jayne Matthews, a founder of Edo Salon recalls, “We were still using ammonia color and Bumble and bumble styling products, and as they were being washed and blown dry the steam gave me the worst case of asthma and a migraine headache like nothing I’ve ever experienced. My bones hurt and my mouth tasted like metal. Finally, I found an incredible naturopath who tested my blood and found it filled with aldehyde.”
You may feel fine today, but what about tomorrow? Health risks aren’t always visible, and they can be severe:
- Studies have shown that infertility and spontaneous miscarriages are highest among hairdressers than women in any other occupation [!].
- A Swedish study involving over 1 million women concluded that pharmaceutical and cosmetology careers carry the highest increased risks of breast cancer of any occupation. The American Journal of Epidemiology concluded that hairstylists had triple the risk of developing breast cancer when they worked with hair dye for over 5 years.
Exposure to toxic chemicals has been linked to upper respiratory diseases, occupational asthma, and in some studies, lung cancer.
- Respiratory and breathing complications are attributed to ammonia in hair color and formaldehyde found in many popular keratin treatments. Exposure has been linked to upper respiratory diseases, occupational asthma, and in some studies, lung cancer. In France, a study found that even though hairdressers represent about 1% of their entire workforce, 20% of the women affected by work-related asthma are hairdressers.
- Exposure to toxic chemicals has been linked to worsening symptoms of anxiety and depression and a greater risk for dementia. Salon workers have a higher risk of dying from Alzheimer’s disease, presenile dementia, and motor neuron disease.
- 70% of hairstylists will suffer from work-related dermatitis (due to frequent exposure to irritating chemicals, bleach, prolonged glove wearing, and shampoos and conditioners that are not pH balanced) at some point in their working life.
- Up to 50% of hairdressers develop dermatitis of the hand within three years of starting work, either resulting from chemical damage or a delayed hypersensitivity reaction
The most effective solution to airborne toxicity is the simplest one: proper ventilation. If you can open windows, do it. Locate rooms where color services are performed in the easiest-to-ventilate spaces. Use extractor fans. Install air purifiers. Make sure that you accomplish two things: Filter recirculating air of impurities, but also bring in fresh air.
Kristina took this issue very seriously. “One of the largest investments that I had to make – even though the hair color line and the products we use are environmentally friendly – was a very particular ventilation system dictated by the California standards for a beauty business,” she recalls. “Clients comment constantly about how clean the air is here; it’s more of an aromatherapy experience. Even as I apply color, they say, “I can’t believe I’m not smelling chemicals, or feeling a burning or tingling on my head.”
Choosing eco-friendly products is a no-brainer in theory but not so simple in practice. “Honestly, the bar is set so low,” Kristina bemoans. “I would go as far to say there’s hardly a bar here in the U.S. You have to really do your homework. Every little bit counts, but to the brands that say they’re eco-friendly because they use organic lavender, I say ‘thank you,’ but for someone who is setting a high bar for my business, that doesn’t meet my standards.’
Kristina also partnered with Green Circle Salons, a company that “collects, recycles and repurposes hair clippings, foils, color-tubes, hair color, papers and plastics, glass, and spa waste, and diverts them from landfills and waterways.” “They’re doing great things in the industry right now,” says Kristina.“We dispose of all of or materials in the most conscious way. Our hair color goes in its own container versus going down the drain, and it gets shipped out to Green Circle.”
On a practical level, there aren’t nearly enough federal agency personnel to enforce regulations in every hair salon in the United States. And, regulations differ from state to state and are rarely specific enough to address toxic chemical exposure. For example, there are very few regulations establishing minimum ventilation requirements in salons. So don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do. Take the initiative and take aggressive precautions. It could literally save lives.
THE WELLNESS MOVEMENT
The Left Brain Group is an agency for “small businesses supporting small businesses, and artists supporting artists,” and “marrying left-brain business strategies with right-brain creativity” that has introduced a new “subculture” to their educational offerings. Called the Conscious Collective, it features artists who infuse consciousness, mindfulness, wellness, and self-care into their work.
Artists they represent include hairstylist Sabrina Michals, who understands the stresses of a physically and mentally demanding profession and is working to “reinvent the wheel of hair care,” to focus on wellness and self-care for both clients and colleagues. A certified Yoga Instructor, she is also a graduate of the New York Institute of Aromatherapy and her new company, Bowry, is a wellness and educational hub for both clients and professional hairdressers to learn to apply self-care techniques in their routines.
Also represented is hairdresser Nicole Cichocki who leads workshops to help participants understand energy anatomy and how to apply the principles of energy medicine. “Maintaining a healthy system is crucial in order to stay engaged and vital and to conserve, protect, and replenish one’s personal energy reserves,” reads a course description. Nackie agrees: “We take on energies – good and bad – and it is important to clear space in our bodies and work environment. Many of us turn to yoga, pilates, reiki, and the healing arts, to not only work with our bodies but the salon’s health too.”
Kristina is passionate about making salons better places to work and to frequent. “In order to sustain ourselves in the industry, businesses and even cultures need to work more efficiently and ethically,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be hard to develop and practice new ways; we are already doing that as professionals. We just need to start with a more holistic approach.”
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Hairdressing has a glamorous sheen in the public eye, but stylists who make the world look beautiful face the ugly truth of constant risk – financially, emotionally, and physically. In fact, 1 out of 5 will suffer from health issues directly related to their occupation. And to salon customers reading this: Think twice when feeling sticker shock when paying for good cutting or color – and take a second look at the steep costs of beauty.