How Safe Are These Spa Services?

woman having massageYou’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.”

Some side effects can be as tough as nails

Manicures and pedicures are perhaps the most common salon treatments, but they’re not necessarily the safest. A University of Texas study  published in the Archives of Dermatology in 2009 reported on two women who’d developed skin cancers on the backs of their hands. Both frequently used nail dryers that emit UV light.

It’s unclear how much the dryers might increase your cancer risk, since lesions take years to develop. What we do know is that they’ve become a fixture in salons everywhere. So until more research is conducted, many dermatologists advise that you slather on sunscreen before your nail tech applies polish, or stick to fan-based dryers, especially if you get your nails done weekly or monthly.

“I will never use a UV light again,” says Carolyn Jacob, MD, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Dermatology and dermatologist in private practice in Chicago. “Yes, this report was only on two patients. But the UV lights drying your nails are primarily made from UVA light, which means there is potential for cell damage, wrinkling, and skin cancer. Go with the fan dryers instead.”

Peels aren’t always so appealing

There’s no denying that they work: Chemical peels can brighten and lighten skin to dramatic effect, and help reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and age spots. But some of these formulas are so powerful that they can cause burns and even scarring if handled incorrectly—and since they’re being used more frequently these days, and in more casual settings (like spas rather than a dermatologist’s office), the potential for danger is multiplied. Nia Terezakis, MD, a clinical professor of dermatology at Tulane University Medical Center and dermatologist in private practice in New Orleans, has seen patients come in with white doughnut shapes around their mouths after getting peels from inexperienced salon technicians who left the solution on for too long, permanently damaging the pigment there.

“There’s nothing in the world that will put the color back in your skin after that,” Dr. Terezakis says.