By Wendy Theberge
The beauty industry is an ugly business to work in. Hairstylists and estheticians are exposed to high levels of irritants, toxins and chemicals on a daily basis over the course of their careers.
Working with hair dyes, bleaches, peroxides, wax solvents, permanent wave solutions and even shampoo takes its toll.
“They come to us with chronic respiratory illnesses like asthma, and hands that are so cracked and bleeding they’re painful just to look at,” says Marion Edgar, a supervisor at the Workers’ Compensation Board-Alberta.
After working as a stylist for nearly 25 years, Ashley Tomm-Smith is a veteran in the industry, and she’s a fighter. When the migraines and asthma attacks triggered by the perfumes and strong odours in the hair products became unbearable, and when no amount of hand cream could keep the contact dermatitis (inflammation of the skin) on her hands at bay, her doctor told her to get out of the business. But she refused to give up her dream job simply because it was making her so sick.
“There’s a mass exodus in this industry because of these health issues,” Ashley says. “The loss of talent is staggering and downright sad. I had to find a way to keep doing what I do in a safe way. I refused to leave the business, so that meant the salon had to change.”
And so last year, Ashley opened North America’s only perfume and toxic-free hair salon in west Edmonton. “Basically, I did a lot of research and took a list of ingredients and said ‘no more.'” After scouring the globe for toxic-free products, Ashley found everything from hair dyes and highlighting products to shampoos and conditioners that are much safer to use and work just as well as the products that are laced with debilitating and carcinogenic chemicals.
The migraines and asthma that Ashley suffered through working in salons have disappeared, and she and her staff have quite literally got their hands back.
“She really cares about us,” raves 22-year-old Danielle, a stylist who joined Ashley’s team six months ago. “I know now that not everything out there is safe just because it’s there.” After only two years in the industry, Danielle’s hands were in terrible shape. The young newlywed’s fingers were so swollen and cracked, she had given up hope of ever wearing her wedding rings again. “The stinging was like lemon juice in a paper cut,” she winces. “It looked like I had a severe burn, like I’d taken a curling iron to them.”
All of the symptoms have vanished since she started working in Ashley’s salon. “I just hope other salon owners will open their eyes to their environment and realize they can make a change that will result in employees who are healthier and more productive.”
Ashley’s salon concept has quickly grown in popularity. Customers love the idea of having their hair washed and coloured with safe products. Many of her clients have suffered for years with severe allergies. To them, the perfume-free salon is an oasis – a place where they can enjoy the luxury of being pampered, knowing their health will remain intact. “They walk in here in tears after years of not being able to go to salons and say thank you for creating this place.”
“What she’s doing is absolutely fabulous,” says Marion Page, who’s seen her share of devastated stylists who have been forced out of the industry because of dermatitis and allergies to products. “It’s well-known throughout this industry that these illnesses are a problem. She (Ashley) should be commended. She is a pioneer.”
“I’ll be shocked if we ever get a WCB claim out of here,” Ashley smiles. “There’s no business owner in the world that wants to be the reason staff are getting sick. My goal is to educate people to read labels and stop using, buying and selling products that are making all of us sick,” she says. “Everybody has an opportunity to make a difference. This is mine.”
Wendy Theberge is communications advisor for the WCB-Alberta.