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Hairspray came into vogue after World War II when the cosmetics industry adopted the use of aerosol spray technology developed by the Department of Agriculture for use with insect sprays during the war. This transfer of technology to the business of beauty helped make women’s hair styles such as the beehive and the bouffant possible. Although the use of hairspray has declined with the popularity of more “natural” hairstyles, hairspray is commonly used by men and women today.
Today’s typical hairspray contains polymers (chain-like molecules) in a solvent and sometimes a propellant. After spraying, the solvent evaporates and leaves behind a stiff layer of the polymers on the hair to help keep it in place. The propellant is usually a liquefied gas under pressure that forces the hairspray out of an aerosol can and produces a mist. Sometimes the propellant is also the solvent. Due to health and environmental concerns, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned certain propellants (e.g., chlorofluorocarbons and vinyl chloride) from use in hairsprays. An example of a propellant used in hairsprays today is isobutane. Non-aerosol hairsprays, such as pump sprays, do not contain a propellant. A common solvent used in hairsprays is alcohol. While exact formulations vary depending on the manufacturer, hairsprays often include essential oils or fragrances as well as conditioning agents and silicone.
When used as directed, hairsprays should be very low in toxicity. Some hairspray inevitably gets on the skin. Some people might have an allergic reaction to the product - usually a red itchy rash that is uncomfortable but not dangerous. Any hairspray that gets on the skin should be promptly washed off.
The FDA warns that some hairsprays contain flammable solvents or propellants. These might catch fire if used around an open flame, hot surface, or other source of ignition. The user or others nearby might be injured. A woman who tried to light a cigarette before her hairspray had dried died from burns.
Unintentional exposures to hairsprays are common and include getting the spray in the eyes, breathing in the fumes or mist, and swallowing hairspray. Small amounts of hairspray in the eyes are expected to produce mild redness and pain that should get better after a thorough rinsing. In the unusual situation where the aerosol nozzle was right next to the eye when the can was sprayed, injury could happen just from the force of the spray. This kind of injury needs to be checked out right away by an emergency physician or an ophthalmologist.
Hairspray should always be used in a well-ventilated area. Briefly inhaling a small amount of hairspray might cause some coughing, choking, or difficulty catching the breath. These effects should get better quickly with breathing fresh air. If anyone is having difficulty breathing that does not get much better soon after getting fresh air, emergency medical services (e.g., 911) should be called. Professional hair stylists repeatedly inhale airborne chemicals from hair products. A research study of hair stylists found that stylists often had coughing, breathlessness, sneezing, and wheezing from inhaling these products. The most irritating products were bleaching powders and hairspray. The study also found that some of the hair stylists had decreased lung function compared to people who did not work with these products. So while occasional inhalation of hairspray should not be dangerous, repeated exposures may have negative health effects.
Unintentional swallowing of small amounts of hairspray is usually not dangerous. The polymers and silicone are non-toxic when ingested; the ingredient of concern is the alcohol. Hairsprays typically are about 25-50% alcohol. Distilled alcoholic beverages, such as vodka or whiskey, are about 40% alcohol. Just like with drinking alcoholic beverages, anyone ingesting too much alcohol-containing hairspray can become intoxicated. Fortunately, unintentional ingestions usually involve small amounts and are not expected to cause intoxication. Even if a toddler manages to unscrew the top of a pump spray bottle, it is not likely that more than a mouthful or two would be ingested. However, it is best to contact Poison Control or check the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for guidance if a child swallows any amount of hairspray. Anyone who gets hairspray in their mouth should rinse out the mouth right away.
Not all ingestions of hairspray are unintentional. Some teenagers and adults intentionally swallow large amounts of hairspray specifically to become intoxicated. This often happens when alcoholic beverages are not available or affordable. The health problems of alcohol abuse are well established. The added toxicities of swallowing large amounts of the other components of hairspray are less well known.
Another type of abuse of hairspray involves inhalation of the fumes to get intoxicated. Inhalation of volatile substances is a major problem in some societies. These substances include liquids such as paint thinner and gasoline and aerosols such as spray paint and hairspray. The chemicals in these products are inhaled into the lungs, absorbed into the blood stream, and enter the brain. When the chemicals enter the brain, the user quickly feels “high” but may also develop toxicities such as muscle weakness, violent behavior, seizures, and loss of consciousness. The “high” only last a short time, so users will often repeat the inhalations several times in a short period to remain intoxicated. Inhalation of aerosols has caused sudden death because the heart suddenly stops working correctly.
If you suspect someone has swallowed hairspray, immediately check the webPOISONCONTROL online tool for guidance or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222. Call Poison Control for guidance for eye, skin, or inhalation exposures.
Karen D. Dominguez, PharmD
Certified Specialist in Poison Information
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FDA warning: hairspray may catch fire. accessed 6/10/2016