Jenny Blair, a hairdresser for two years in Minnesota, has the kind of enthusiasm for her work that other people might envy.
“I love having social time at work,” Blair says. “There are constantly people stopping in — I get my social and work time done at the same time. And I love being able to be creative and make a good living.”
Her zeal is shared by many people who cut hair for a living, says John Payne, a haircutter for 38 years in Pennsylvania and president of the Hair International/Associated Master Barbers and Beauticians of America. “I get up in the morning, and I like to go to work,” Payne says.
But although cutting hair can be stimulating for the mind, the profession can be rough on the body. On the positive side, a debate that arose over the hairdresser’s — and client’s — risk of contracting infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B has cooled, as most salons now follow rigorous disinfection procedures. But hair stylists still have at least three major complaints about their work: they suffer from back and leg problems, hand and arm stress, and allergic reactions to the chemicals they use in the salon.
Moreover, a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that cosmetologists in North Carolina who worked full-time and performed a range of chemical services had a moderately increased risk of miscarriage. Another agency study concluded that cosmetologists had a higher risk of developing lung disorders as a result of exposure to hair spray.
Keeping on your toes
As anyone who’s done it knows, standing all day can put a strain on feet — especially in salons where trendy concrete floors are the rule. A regular shift for a hairdresser lasts from eight to ten hours, and hairdressers are usually on their feet for most of that time. “I used to dress up a little bit, have some heels going on,” says Jenifer Akagi, who’s in her 20s. “You can forget it now. It got so bad that I could hardly walk to my car after work.” Akagi says stabbing pains still race through the backs of her knees at times, and she’s developed premature varicose veins from standing so long. Her lower back also tends to be sore from leaning over to shampoo her clients.
As for Blair, it’s her upper back that causes the most problems. “The worst physical pain is in the shoulder blades, caused by keeping your hands in front of you and grabbing onto hair all day long,” she says. “Major, major pain in the shoulder blades. Every stylist I know has big knots.”
Payne, president of Hair International, says hairdressers can help alleviate some of these pains by taking the following steps:
- Support your weight on both feet. “People who are on their feet and standing in the same spot for a long period of time get into the bad habit of not putting their weight on both feet,” Payne says. “They don’t stand with all their weight distributed on both sides; they lean to one side or the other. After a period of time, you pull all the bones on one side up and push them down on the other side, and they pinch nerves.”
- Invest in a side chair. To give your feet a rest, invest in one of the versatile working stools available for hairdressers. These are little seats with no arms that can be adjusted according to the client’s height. At the same time, these chairs can help raise the hairdresser to a more appropriate level, which might alleviate the shoulder blade problem. “You don’t want to have your hands too high above your heart,” Payne says. “When your hands are up above your heart, it makes the heart pump a lot harder, and that also could be giving you a lot of problems with your shoulders.”
- Exercise and watch your diet. The more weight you carry, the more strain is placed on your feet, legs, and back. “People in our profession should exercise,” Payne says. “They should not be too heavy. The more you weigh, the harder it is for you to be standing on your feet day in and day out.”
- Use a rubber mat in your workspace. Covering the floor around your client’s chair with a rubber mat will help cushion your feet and protect your back.
- Invest in a good pair of shoes. Chicago Cosmetologists, a division of the National Cosmetology Association, recommends that employees should wear flat shoes with no more than a 2-inch heel. Ideally, the shoes should have shock absorbent pads, skid resistant soles, and laces, which provide more support. Hairdressers who already have foot pain might want to buy a pair of insoles or orthotic devices, according to the association.
- Get regular massages. Take time to pamper your body. Massage can help alleviate back pain, and massage therapists can determine your specific problems and give you tips on how to avoid them. If pain persists, see your doctor.
Preventing repetitive strain injuries
Many hairdressers also suffer from repetitive strain injuries from the repetitive nature of haircutting and other work, according to Payne. These injuries, caused by repeating the same motions hundreds and even thousands of times a day, are a serious hazard. Tendinitis can cause excruciating pain and make it difficult or impossible to even turn doorknobs or hold a newspaper; carpal tunnel syndrome, a pinching of the median nerve in the wrist, may cause irreversible nerve damage and require surgery.
Blair, who spends many hours on hair extensions and braids, says that her fingers are often sore and numb by the end of her shift. The worst, she recalls, was a day when she had to weave three bags of hair into one woman’s head. “It took two of us 11 hours,” she says. Afterwards, “I couldn’t even talk, couldn’t even think. That’s when my fingers actually gave out on both of my hands. I could not grab anything, and I couldn’t control them. It was pretty scary, actually.”
If you feel like your fingers and arms are starting to ache, tingle at night, or cramp up for long periods of time, experts suggest the following precautions:
- Take breaks: When working on a job like this, take breaks as often as possible. Stretch your hands and shoulders. If time allows, try to schedule jobs that take more than a couple of hours over a two-day period.
- Get professional help: See a physician immediately if you suffer numbness or tingling in your fingers: this is a sign of carpel tunnel syndrome. You should also see a doctor if you feel chronic pain or a heavy feeling in the arms or hands, which can signal tendinitis. The treatments may include prolonged rest, physical therapy, and (in the case of carpel tunnel) surgery.
- Invest in ergonomically correct tools. You might want to check out, for example, a relatively new product called swivel-thumb scissors, which allow your thumb to rotate 360 degrees while cutting hair and gives you more mobility in your wrist and elbow, thus relieving pressure on those areas. The professional scissors and shears manufacturer Arius-Eickert, among others, carries this type of scissors.
Working with hazardous chemicals
Repetitive strain aside, the issue of most concern to most cosmetologists is chemical exposure in the workplace. According to NIOSH, the chemicals used in a hair salon can cause a range of allergies and lung problems, from hairspray-induced coughs to rashes caused by certain chemicals in hair dye. The products most often cited are aerosol hair sprays; formaldehyde and alcohol-based disinfectants, which are associated with an increase in the risk of spontaneous abortion; and methyl methacrylate liquid monomers (MMA) and ethyl methacrylate (EMA).
The latter chemicals, used in nail products, can cause asthma, contact dermatitis, and allergies of the eyes and nose, according to NIOSH. Although the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of all products containing 100 percent MMA in 1974, some nail products still contain a lower concentration of the chemical. Other chemicals used in nail salons — acetate and toluene — are also linked to headaches and skin and respiratory disorders.
Dyes and bleaches also cause dermatitis, or skin rashes, among some hairdressers. “I do a lot of bleaches, and I just have really crazy hands from that,” Blair says. “The bleach is constantly eating away my skin. I have extremely sensitive fingers, to the point where I can’t grab certain things.”
To avoid exposure to hazardous chemicals, Payne offers these tips:
- Wear gloves: “When you’re doing a chemical process, whether it’s bleaching color or highlighting, you should always put rubber gloves on because all those chemicals are very drying to the skin,” Payne suggests. “It can get to the point where your hands can get so dried out they can crack and split and bleed.” Gloves are a good idea even when shampooing, because the detergent in some products can be harsh on hands.
- Proper ventilation: Hair spray and other fumes need to be ventilated — pumped out through exhaust fans or aired out through open windows or doors (preferably both). Payne suggests an electric air cleaner to further purify the air.
- Know your limits: Some people are simply more sensitive to chemicals than others, Payne says. If you’re running into chronic trouble, whether it’s with your respiratory system or your skin, you may want to reconsider your career.
NIOSH and the Nail Manufacturers Council also recommend the following precautions):
- Disinfect your tools after each treatment: This will help protect against hepatitis B and other blood-borne diseases.
- Keep dispenser bottles closed: When using nail products, always use bottles with narrow throats (for the application brush) and a pressure-sensitive bottle stopper. These will cut down on evaporation and exposure to harmful chemicals. To cut down on fumes and accidental misuse, keep all chemicals in closed, marked containers, and store all disinfected implements in a clean, covered container or in a closed drawer to prevent contamination.
- Wear protective clothing and glasses: Since artificial nails can chip into the air when they’re removed, a nail technician should protect her eyes with safety glasses. To protect skin from acrylic dust, NIOSH recommends wearing long sleeves and gloves, and washing hands, arms and face several times a day with mild soap and water.
- Don’t eat, drink, or smoke on the job: Methacrylates in nail dust and other chemicals can be harmful if swallowed or even if they come into contact with your mouth or face. Because salons are full of flammable chemicals, smoking should be strictly forbidden.
- Use professional products: To avoid MMA and other chemicals that have been flagged as hazards (such as toluene, ethyl methacrylate, and formaldehyde), make sure your salon buys reputable products labeled “for professional use” and intended for the nails only. These products come with directions that should be read and heeded.
A little-explored hazard in hairdressing is job stress, which some cosmetologists attribute partly to clients’ unreasonable expectations. Although most clients may be interesting and enjoyable to work with, there are always a few who become irate when their haircut doesn’t transform them into the dazzling magazine photo they clipped prior to their visit. “We’re not really given any people-skills training,” says Akagi, a hairdresser for seven years. “That’s kind of something you need to have on your own, or hopefully maybe develop by watching other people.”
Professional Beauty Association, http://www.probeauty.org. This trade association represents the interests of the beauty industry. by legislative work and distributing product information.
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Musculoskeletal disorders among cosmetologists. Int J. Environ Res Public, 2009 Dec;6(12):2967-79. Epub 2009 Nov 27.
EM. John, et al, “Spontaneous abortions among cosmetologists,” Epidemiology, March 1994.