Risking your health for hair

Beautiful hair can come at a price – not just for your wallet, but for your health.

“We don’t have to poison ourselves to be beautiful today,” says Nancy MacDonald, owner of Halifax’s Eco Chic Hair Studio.

Her salon is all-organic and vegan. Its products are free of ammonia – a chemical that opens up the hair cuticle to lighten hair and develop added colour – and formaldehyde, which is often used in hair-straightening treatments.

The salon also shuns para-phenylenediamines (traditional hair dyes), plastics, sodium lauryl sulphates (often used in shampoos) and parabens (a preservative).

“I don’t have to breathe ammonia to do your hair colour. I don’t have to download you with chemicals through your skin and I don’t have to download the environment with tons of chemicals,” says MacDonald.

These chemicals are often linked with allergic reactions as well as other health hazards.

In 2010, Health Canada issued an advisory regarding Brazilian Blowouts – a popular hair straightening treatment – for having high levels of formaldehyde. The treatment is banned in Canada but can be found in the United States.

Women’s Voices for the Earth, who advocate for a toxic-free environment for women, released a study in 2014 titled Beauty and Its Beast. The report found that 60 per cent of salon workers suffer from skin conditions. Other health risks included decreased lung function, a higher risk of developing asthma and diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as several types of cancer.

Halifax's Eco Chic Hair Studio is an organic and vegan salon
Halifax’s Eco Chic Hair Studio is an organic and vegan salon

MacDonald opened Eco Chic out of concern for her own health and the health of her clients – and she isn’t alone.

Beth Thompson, owner of the Cosmic Tree Essentials, a cosmetics company in Wolfville, says “anything you can do with mainstream makeup is achievable with vegan makeup.”

Thompson says she had suffered from eczema since she was a child and was eventually instructed by a doctor to avoid makeup products, due to the harmful effects on her skin.

“If you look at the number of different products people use in the course of a day and the number of ingredients in those, we’re really assaulting our bodies with all kinds of chemicals,” says Thompson.

“That’s why I would promote using things from nature because we’ve evolved alongside those things.”

Cosmic Tree Essentials, established in 2006, offers lipsticks, foundations, eye shadows, bath products, blush and hair products – but lipsticks and foundations are Thompson’s best sellers.

“There’s a sense of integrity you get from knowing that your personal care routine isn’t harming the planet and isn’t harming other creatures,” says Thompson.

Thompson uses plant wax instead of beeswax as well as plant or vegetable oils instead of the traditional lanolin – a grease extracted from the oil glands of sheep often used by makeup companies.

At Eco Chic, MacDonald uses synthetic dye molecules – or pigments – suspended in coconut and other natural oils, rather than chemicals. She says organic hair dyes are closer the body’s natural pH, meaning it damages the hair less.

“We can have our beauty that’s more organically derived but be just as dramatic, just as fabulous, just as electric red, just as platinum blonde as anybody else,” says MacDonald.

Dana Whiteford, a master stylist at Eco Chic, says she thinks many people don’t know much about the toxicity of their hair colour.

MacDonald says Eco Chic hair dyes are safe for cancer patients and pregnant women, who normally would not be able to get their hair done.

“We’re just people like everybody else. We eat crackers and chocolate and drink wine. We’re not super holistic gurus. But we’re conscious,” says MacDonald. “I believe health and beauty should merge together.”