How Safe Are These Spa Services?

woman having massage( — You’ve probably heard that pedicure tubs are teeming with fungus. And you probably know that your waxer shouldn’t double-dip. And that hair-silkening keratin treatments, which likely contain formaldehyde (a possible human carcinogen) can cause burning eyes and a sore throat…or worse.

These and other dangers have been popping up at salons all across the nation, and it’s hard for clients, regulators, and even salon owners to keep up. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a limited ability to regulate cosmetic ingredients, says Claudia Polsky, a deputy attorney general in California’s Environment Law section. For instance, “the FDA cannot require ingredient labeling on products intended for salon use only,” she says. And there’s no federal body overseeing the safety of salons, or how well-trained employees are.

That means it’s up to you to get informed. Here’s what you need to know to stay safe.

Great hair can be dangerous

Walk into a salon offering a keratin treatment, and you may see stylists in masks with fans pointed their way. And with good reason: Formaldehyde has been ID’d as the key active ingredient in many hair-straightening treatments currently offered in salons. Recently, Oregon’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration found the chemical in samples of nine different products—one of which was actually labeled “formaldehyde-free.”

Some epidemiological studies have linked exposure to formaldehyde over several months with certain forms of cancer, such as leukemia. In the short term, it can cause scalp rashes when it comes into contact with the head; when inhaled (whether you’re receiving the treatment or sitting next to someone who is), it can lead to burning eyes, nose, and throat, and even asthma attacks if you’re prone to them, says Julia Quint, PhD, a retired toxicologist from the California Department of Public Health. While it may be possible to get a safe keratin treatment if the salon is properly ventilated, “we’re advising that consumers steer clear altogether,” says environmental scientist Alexandra Gorman Scranton, who directs science and research for Women’s Voices for the Earth, a nonprofit organization that works to eliminate toxic chemicals that have an impact on women’s health. “Formaldehyde sensitivity can vary from person to person, but you won’t know you have a problem with it until you get sick.”