This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
Beauty is pain, or so the saying goes. (In the case of bikini waxing, we wholeheartedly agree.) And, while all of the tweezing, dyeing, and primping can be challenging at times, here’s what it should never be: hazardous to our health.
Unfortunately, increasing evidence suggests that some beauty treatments may be associated with a host of ills, from antibiotic-resistant infections to respiratory problems. Whether you’re a woman who gets her hair chemically straightened or you’re a salon worker who handles those chemicals, it’s important to understand potential risks — and how to protect yourself.
Of course, the majority of beauty treatments are safe when performed by a licensed professional, and our goal isn’t to stoke fear or turn you off from some much deserved Me Time. But, wouldn’t you rather be informed? After all, nothing’s quite as attractive as a woman in the know.
Here, nine beauty treatments that have the potential to cause some harmful side effects — plus, expert advice on making sure you stay as healthy as you are pretty.
Extensions can create a lusher, fuller mane. Unfortunately, if they’re not applied correctly, they can lead to serious scalp problems, too. “If a stylist doesn’t put in extensions correctly, it’s more difficult to comb your hair,” says Dr. Michael Kulick, MD, a board-certified plastic surgeon in San Francisco. “So, especially if they’re new to extensions, people brush and pull out the natural hair.”
That renders the scalp more susceptible to infections that won’t go away on their own. “By the time people get to my office, they’ve usually been self-treating the infection, but they need oral antibiotics,” Dr. Kulick says. What’s more, the scalp doesn’t always recover, he adds, “Eventually, this could lead to alopecia — bald spots the size of a nickel.”
What’s more, chemicals used in some extension glues are potentially toxic — even life-threatening — and cumulative exposure can add up. “Some glues contain styrene, which is a carcinogen,” says Jamie McConnell, director of programs and policy for Women’s Voices For the Earth, an advocacy group that raises awareness of toxic chemicals.
She points to other chemicals, trichloroethylene and 1,4 dioxane, that can cause damage to the liver and kidneys. “That’s not to say that all glue has these chemicals,” she continues. “You just need to be a savvy consumer and ask for the safety data sheet. If you can’t find one, that’s a red flag.”
Laser Hair Removal
“There are definitely risks with any lasertreatment,” says Dr. Christine Urman, MD, medical and cosmetic dermatologist at TuftsMedical Center. Discoloration of the skin and scarring are the most common issues, and they’re more common among people with darker skin; in some cases, the scarring may be permanent. (Still, for the majority of people, lasers are safe. “There aren’t any long-term risks unless you’ve had any one of these complications,” she emphasizes.)
So, how to minimize the chances of getting burned? “Different types of lasers have different degrees of risk, and skin color is very important,” Dr. Urman explains. “Don’t do any lasers on tan skin — ever. If your skin is darker in color naturally, it’s not unsafe for you to do lasers, but you need to make sure the person who’s performing the treatment is knowledgeable about lasers and which is most appropriate for you.”
Like Dr. Urman, Dr. Kulick recommends working with a medical professional for laser hair removal. But, he adds, not all doctors are intimately familiar with lasers, so make sure you see a specialist. “Sometimes a physician may oversee a spa or salon, but he or she might be an emergency physician — and a well-educated nurse who’s been working with lasers may know more than the physician.”
Meanwhile, some researchers are looking into connections between air quality and laser treatments. A yet-to-be released study by Dr. Gary S. Chuang found that laser plumes — in other words, the smoke released during treatments — released volatile organic compounds, including benzene (linked to leukemia) and diethyl phthalate, which can cause birth defects in pregnant rats.
The study analyzed the particles of the plume, not their direct effects on human health — but, still, the findings are another reason to avoid poorly ventilated treatment rooms. Some facilities, like Beam Laser Spa in Manhattan, offer patients and their employees paper masks to help guard against inhalation. It’s an easy extra precaution that may be worth taking until we know more about this potentially harmful side effect.
As it turns out, waxing doesn’t always go so smoothly. Double-dipping — in other words, using an applicator to apply wax on skin, then returning the applicator to a hot pot of wax before continuing — is an easy way to spread infection. “In the worst-case scenario, imagine that a person has folliculitis,” says Dr. Kulick. “What if she has a MRSA infection? Wax isn’t sterile, so when that same wax is reheated and used on another person, you can imagine what happens.” And, because MRSA infections are antibiotic-resistant by nature, they’re incredibly difficult to treat.
Theoretically, avoiding the spread of infection should be as easy as never double-dipping. “It’s hard to regulate, though,” Dr. Kulick laments. “Physicians’ offices and hospitals are regulated, but waxing salons sometimes are not. It doesn’t matter if it’s a $15 wax or a $50 wax — bacteria can’t tell whether you’re in a bargain salon or a high-end spa.” Might not be a bad time to learn the fine art of a DIY bikini wax.
Okay, not technically a beauty treatment, but we thought this was worth covering because it does have some beauty-specific side effects. Here’s the good news: You’re highly unlikely to catch a serious disease from spending time in a hot tub. Here’s the not-so-good news: “There’s a type of folliculitis that’s actually called hot-tub folliculitis,” says Dr. Maria Colavincenzo, MD, assistant professor in dermatology,Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “It’s caused by a water-loving bacteria called pseudomonas, and it’s not necessarily killed off by warm temperatures.” If you break out in pimple-like spots or a bumpy red rash, you’ll probably need to see a doctor for antibiotics.
Less commonly, hot tubs can spread Legionnaires’ disease, a form of pneumonia. (Two such cases were traced to a fitness club in suburban Chicago last year.) Symptoms include fever, chills, and a cough; fortunately, this infection is easily treatable with antibiotics.
How can you avoid these risks? Through proper cleaning and disinfecting of hot tubs, of course.
Gel & Acrylic Manicures
In 2009, the Journal of the American Medical Association: Dermatology published a study in which two healthy women — with no family history of cancer — developed skin cancer on the back of their hands. They were both gel-manicure fans, which caused some people to question the safety of UV lamps used to cure gel polish. Then, last year, a different report in the same journal studied the lamps themselves; it found that although the UV radiation varied by dryer, the risk of developing skin cancer from them remains low.
There’s no cause-and-effect connection between the gel process and skin cancer, but it’s still wise to protect skin with sunscreen or fingerless gloves. “UV light in general is carcinogenic,” Dr. Colavincenzo says. But, she adds, it’s important to think about protecting exposed skin any time — not just at the nail salon. “Certainly, patients who’ve already had skin cancer should be extra-conscious about gel manicures. But, in just going down the street, people get tons of sun exposure in their normal life.” The takeaway? Protecting your skin from UV exposure is always smart, but the occasional gel manicure isn’t cause for concern.
That said, skip acrylics altogether. “When we talk about the health and safety of salon workers, we worry about artificial-nail treatments,” says McConnell. That’s largely because of methyl methacrylate (MMA), a toxic substance sometimes used to create acrylics. MMA is linked to respiratory problems as well as damage to the lungs, liver, and heart. “It’s particularly concerning for salon workers, but if I were a client, I would opt not to get that service,” McConnell adds.
Chemical Hair Straighteners
It’s been a few years since many of us heard about the formaldehyde used in keratin hair-straightening formulas. Although some manufacturers have created new formulas without this known carcinogen, “it’s still a problem,” says McConnell. “There are some formaldehyde-free hair straighteners out there, but formaldehyde is still in others.”
For consumers, it’s difficult to know which formulas are formaldehyde-free. “Every professional, salon-quality product should come with a safety data sheet,” McConnell explains. “That sheet lists some of the most hazardous chemicals, but here’s the tricky thing: Sometimes it’s called methylene glycol.” When heated — which is exactly what happens during a straightening treatment — methylene glycol, like certain other chemicals used in hair products, releases formaldehyde gas. So even though it’s not technically formaldehyde, it’s still releasing the fumes that are cause for concern in the first place.
Unless the Food and Drug Administration moves to regulate straightening formulas more aggressively, it’s up to the consumer to readlabels. “Consumers would have to be savvy about the chemicals they want to avoid,” McConnell explains. “Then, they would have to ask their stylist to see the safety data sheet.” Better brush up on your chemistry — or learn to love your hair’s natural texture.
Sunscreen is meant to protect us from skin cancer, but newer studies suggest its ingredients could cause health problems of their own. As opposed to physical sunscreens, which use zinc oxide or titanium oxide to cover and protect skin from the sun’s rays, chemical sunscreens work by breaking down UV radiation after it reaches skin. Some of these chemicals, such as oxybenzone, are suspected of being endocrine disruptors. (In other words, they mimic estrogen and “fool” our hormonal system, potentially causing certain cancer cells to grow.)
Are chemical sunscreens dangerous? Depends on who you ask. A 2008 review by the Scientific Committee on Consumer Products (SCCP) of the European Commission declared that oxybenzone does not pose a risk, but theEnvironmental Working Group points to altered sperm production in animals and its presence in mothers’ milk as toxicity concerns.
Some doctors, such as Dr. Colavincenzo, choose to err on the side of caution. “We can’t point to any proven cases of cancer linked to chemicals in sunscreen,” she says. “We have imperfect information. Still, the possibility is concerning, especially when used on children.”
So, she encourages patients to take common-sense sun precautions — stay in the shade, wear a hat, and limit exposed skin — and to use physical sunscreens if possible. “I favor sunscreens that use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide,” she explains. “But, as I always tell people, the chemical kind is still better than using nothing and getting burned.”
First things first: A faux tan is always safer than one from the sun. “Spray tans are a great alternative to tanning beds,” McConnell points out. In addition, dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which stains the skin with the tan, is largely considered safe to use on skin.
So, what’s the issue? DHA, which the FDA approved in 1977, was originally meant to be applied topically. Now, through spray tans, DHA may be inhaled. “Sprays put tiny aerosol particles into the air, and we breathe those in,” says Dr. Colavincenzo. “Our lungs are filters, but when tiny particles get in, we don’t know what will happen years and years later.”
The FDA has received complaints of coughing, dizziness, and fainting from spray-tan users, but the agency notes that other factors may play a part. To minimize potentially dangerous side effects, it’s best to cover your nose, mouth, and eyes while getting a spray tan. Or, you could always go with a tried-and-true topical self-tanner.
Finally, we know you know this, but the World Health Organization has labeled tanning beds as “carcinogenic to humans.” Don’t go — not even once.
Dyeing one’s hair is generally safe, but one ingredient can cause a host of problems. One of the most common allergens, p-Phenylenediamine (PPD) is used in almost all hair dyes. For the minority of people who are allergic to PPD, exposure can result in mild reactions (such as dermatitis) or, in very rare cases, trouble breathing. “A reaction could include scaling and redness, and because eyelids have thinner skin, it could cause dramatic swelling,” explains Dr. Colavincenzo.
Darker dyes are more likely to cause allergic reactions, and people can develop sensitivity any time. “Some people have an idea that [they’re okay because] they’ve been using hair dye for years,” Dr. Colavincenzo says. “But, you acquire allergies. You aren’t born with them, and you can’t become un-allergic.” That’s why doing a pre-color patch test is so important, even if you’ve never had problems before — these allergies can develop out of nowhere.
Illustrated by Sydney Hass
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