From asthma and dermatitis to back pain and tendonitis – the health hazards facing hairdressers

Both domestically and medically, I’ve had quite a lot to do with hairdressers. While doing TV shows, I have been the beneficiary of much primping by skilled hands and the generous use of hairspray to ready me for the cameras.

I remember thinking at the time that it can’t be good for hairdressers to be inhaling that hairspray.

I tried to find research on the effects of long-term inhalation of hairspray, but could find none.

However, a paper published in France in 2003 showed that 20% of women affected by work-related asthma were hairdressers, compared with 1% of the general population.

That wasn’t the only hazard of hairdressing I encountered. When I was a practising dermatologist and ran a weekly allergy clinic, I came across an allergy in hairdressers I thought never existed – an allergy to water. Yes, to pure, seemingly harmless, water.

Well, science has marched on since then and the dangers associated with hairdressing are now better documented.

Research indicates that hairdressers are at risk from seemingly innocuous activities, such as washing hair, cutting hair and using hairspray.

Repeatedly washing hands can lead to sore hands, and a study in 2004 revealed that two-thirds of UK hairdressers had experienced work-related dermatitis in the form of red, sore and sometimes itchy skin, mainly of the hands and fingers, but also on the arms, face and neck.

Some studies link breathing in hairspray and other chemicals to asthma.

Also, using scissors for hours on end can provoke arthritis and tendonitis in the hands and thumb from repetitive strain injury (RSI).

And older forms of hair dye were blamed for a link between hairdressing and bladder cancer. Fortunately, these ingredients have been discontinued, though an analysis of 42 bladder cancer studies in 2010 showed that hairdressers faced a 30-35% higher risk than the general public.

It also struck me that standing up for hours could strain the spine and cause back pain. It always amazed me that hairdressers could hold up their arms for periods of time which would have left me with aching shoulders.

Sure enough, musculoskeletal disorders are five times more prevalent among hairdressers than the public in general. In a 2009 study of 145
hairdressers, 40% experienced “work-related upper limb disorders”.

It’s time for Health and Safety to take a stand, but surely many of these issues could be solved by wearing appropriate gloves and taking regular breaks?

And surely sitting down sometimes while styling hair, as well as using ergonomic scissors and lighter hairdryers, would help?