Preventing skin problems in the hairdressing and beauty industry

 It is a disturbing fact that 61 per cent of practicing hairdressers and 59 per cent of student hairdressers have experienced some form of skin problem on their hands, usually contact dermatitis, during their career.  These alarming figures were confirmed in a study conducted by the Occupational Dermatology Research and Education Centre, Melbourne.

Hairdressers and beauty therapists come into contact with a large range of substances each day at work, such as shampoos and conditioners, dyes, bleach, wax, massage oils, skin products, nail glues and nail polishes.  These products are made up of many different chemicals that can affect the skin and may lead to dermatitis.

It is important that people considering a career in hairdressing and beauty therapy are educated about potential skin problems, preventative measures and skin care management, before as well as during employment.  This is particularly important for those who have a personal or family history of eczema, asthma or hay fever, as this greatly increases the risk of developing some types of work-related contact dermatitis.

There are three main types of contact dermatitis

  1. Irritant contact dermatitis
  2. Allergic contact dermatitis
  3. Contact urticaria

Irritant contact dermatitis

Skin irritants are the most common cause of occupational contact dermatitis.  Continual wetting and drying of the skin, as well as handling particular substances, will de-fat the skin and cause it to dry out, flake, split and crack.  This will occur more rapidly in people with sensitive skin, particularly if they have a history of eczema (even if only as a baby), asthma or hay fever.  Irritant contact dermatitis is common in apprentices, junior and casual staff, who often perform a lot of basin work.  This condition occurs gradually and builds up over time.

Common irritants in the hairdressing and beauty industry include:
Water from washing hands
Water and wet work from washing clients hair and handling wet hair
Shampoo, conditioner and styling products
Bleach and perming solution
Soaps and detergents
Cleaning products
Not drying hands properly
Heat and sweating from wearing waterproof style gloves for long periods of time

Taking good care of hands and protecting them from the very beginning of a career will prevent this skin condition.

 Allergic contact dermatitis

Allergic contact dermatitis can occur at any time in a hairdresser’s or beauty therapist’s career and often happens after irritant contact dermatitis has already damaged the skin.  Allergy will cause the skin to be very itchy, flake, split, crack and blister.  The skin will flare-up some hours after the particular chemical has been contacted, because this type of allergy is delayed i.e. 4-24 hours after contact.  It may take days or weeks to settle down again. It is diagnosed by patch testing at a specialised clinic.  Once this condition has developed there is no cure.  Prevention is the key.

Common allergens in the hairdressing and beauty industry include:
Hair dyes
Perming solution
Chemicals used in some rubber gloves
Acrylate chemicals used for artificial nails
Depilatory waxes.  Those allergic to sticking plasters may also be allergic to depilatory waxes.

Contact Urticaria

Contact urticaria is a different type of allergy and occurs immediately (within 10-30 minutes) of the allergen touching the skin and settles down an hour or two after contact ceases.  It is a reaction to specific proteins, leading to welts on the skin, itching, and swelling and can also cause a runny nose, sneezing or asthma.

Contact urticaria may ultimately develop into a life threatening condition (anaphylaxis).

In hairdressing and beauty therapy, causes of this type of allergy may include:

  • Natural rubber latex e.g. cheap, powdered, disposable latex gloves
  • Bleach (dust free bleach can lessen the likelihood of developing this type of allergy)

Testing is performed by a blood test or skin prick test at a specialised allergy centre.

 How can hairdressers and beauty therapists prevent occupational contact dermatitis?

Regular use of moisturiser

  • Feed the skin with the moisture it loses during a working day
  • A rich/thick cream, which contains no fragrances, is best
  • Should be applied at breaks, at the end of the day, and before bed
  • You may find that a less greasy moisturising lotion is easier to apply during the day and does not take much time to apply. Use a greasier cream at night.
  • Rub well into the hands and wrists, not forgetting between the fingers

Wear suitable gloves for the job

To prevent work-related contact dermatitis occurring or recurring, it is imperative that hairdressers and beauty therapists use the right sort of gloves for the task being performed.  However, it is not uncommon for them to begin to wear gloves only when the skin on their hands is already damaged.  The long-term outcomes for hairdressers and beauty therapists with occupational contact dermatitis are generally poor and many sadly end up leaving the profession.  Appropriate education and use of preventative measures may reduce the chances of this occurring and preserve careers.

Hairdressers and beauty therapists should wear gloves when:

  • Mixing and applying hair colours
  • Mixing and applying bleach
  • Perming
  • Rinsing out chemicals
  • Shampooing
  • Using chemicals for artificial nails
  • Handling wax (if you have a history of problems with sticking plaster)
  • Cleaning the salon, therapy beds and equipment

 Appropriate glove types are :

Disposable vinyl or disposable polyethylene gloves

Disposable nitrile gloves

Specifically designed hairdressers gloves are usually reusable and powder free and although made of latex they are a high quality and rarely cause allergy

Black Satin ™  by ETI

Reusable rubber or vinyl gloves

Gloves to avoid:

Powdered latex gloves – avoid using these, as they can cause development of latex allergy.

Glove tips:

  • Disposable gloves must be thrown away after each use. They are not designed to be washed and re-used; this poor work practice allows the chemicals to pass through the glove and onto the skin
  • Always keep the contaminated surface of the re-useable gloves on the outside. Even after washing, some of the chemicals remain on the surface and are still active
  • Wear gloves from the beginning of a career in the hairdressing and beauty therapy industry
  • When wearing gloves for a long period of time, wear cotton gloves underneath to minimise sweating (these can be purchased from the supermarket or chemist)
  • Change gloves between clients and at least hourly if still dealing with the same client to reduce sweating, which may also irritate the skin 

Important Tips

  • Limit the number of times hands are washed and dried during the day, if possible, and dry thoroughly with a towel. Don’t forget between the fingers
  • Take rings off at work because chemicals, detergents and water get trapped underneath and cause dermatitis to develop
  • Remember, if the skin is already damaged, the chances of developing allergic contact dermatitis are much higher.
  • When wearing gloves for a long period of time, cotton gloves can be worn underneath to minimise sweating (these can be purchased from the supermarket or chemist)
  • Artificial nail work requires extraction of the fumes (mount to the side of the work area and extract fumes to the outside of the building)
  • Use a dust free bleach
  • Remember, clients may have a history of, or are at risk of developing, an allergy to hair dye, bleach, or latex gloves. Always check with the client if they have any allergies.


Special Note: Temporary tattoos

Hair dye has recently become an important cause of allergy to so-called ‘henna tattoos’. Although these temporary tattoos may be henna (a plant extract), they may also contain hair dye in them to make the tattoo darker and last longer.

 Cases have been reported from people who have had the ‘tattoo’ applied when they have been on holiday in Bali and other destinations, such as on the Gold Coast.

 This allergy can be extremely severe as the dye may be applied in much stronger concentrations than when it is applied to the hair. In some cases it may be mixed with a solvent, which aids skin penetration. This tattoo may cause allergy to develop and usually doesn’t cause a rash at the time, however may occur some days later, even after returning home. Subsequently, when the person is exposed to hair dye, eyebrow or eyelash tint, an extreme skin reaction may develop.

 This allergy is permanent and would certainly ruin a hairdressers’ career.