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A walk down the hair care aisle in a grocery store reveals a dizzying array of hair styling products. The use of hair products dates back thousands of years. Hair coated in fatty animal or plant extracts was found on Egyptian mummies. Fast forward to Victorian Britain where commercially manufactured products such as Rowland's Macassar Oil and Brylcream were used for styling men's hair. Modern products include hair gels, waxes, pomades, creams, and mousses.
According to survey research, more than half a million people in the US spent $500 or more on hair care products over a 3-month time span. Given their widespread use, unintentional exposures and adverse effects are bound to happen.
Styling products generally contain a hair stiffener to keep hair in place. Examples of stiffeners are oils, petroleum jelly, beeswax, carnauba wax, and xanthan gums. Some hair gels and mousse contain volatile alcohols such as SD alcohol or isopropyl alcohol. Similar to hairspray, aerosol mousse products can contain propellants and solvents such as isobutane and isopropyl alcohol, respectively.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, some hair loss and hair damage can be caused by hair styling, including the use of some hair care products. However, the hair loss is usually from the styling technique and not the actual product. Hair appliances and other styling activity can cause hair loss due to breakage along the hair shaft or excessive force that pulls the hair out of the scalp. Alcohol-containing gels and mousses can have a drying effect, which will leave the hair more prone to damage during styling. This type of hair loss is temporary. Other temporary hair loss can occur if the product causes dermatitis. There are several reports of mild dermatitis from hair styling products requiring medical attention. Rarely, severe dermatitis can cause permanent hair loss.
Hair styling products regularly come into contact with the scalp, but they could also come into contact with other areas of the skin. Unintentionally getting some on the skin usually does not cause any problems, but some of the ingredients can cause skin irritation or an itchy rash. These effects are not dangerous and usually can be managed at home. In some sensitive people, severe contact dermatitis can occur and should be treated by a medical professional.
Unintentionally getting a small amount in the eyes should be minimally toxic, with mostly some mild pain and redness expected. However, there is a report of more serious temporary injury from repeated exposure to hair gel. A 57-year-old man got perspiration mixed with his hair gel into his eyes when he exercised, causing severe irritation. This happened over a 4-year period. The eye problem cleared up after he stopped using the hair gel. Prompt irrigation of all eye exposures should limit toxicity.
Unintentionally swallowing a small amount of most hair styling products by an adult or child should not be dangerous. Some of the ingredients are non-toxic, while others cause only minor symptoms such as irritation of the mouth, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Alcohol-containing gels and mousses can cause inebriation if large amounts are swallowed, which is uncommon with unintentional ingestions.
Inhaling the propellant of aerosol mousses is uncommon when using these products as directed. Unlike hair spray, these products are not sprayed directly onto the head or anywhere near the face. Toddlers who unintentionally inhale a small amount of the propellant might have some minor coughing or difficulty catching their breath, but this should go away with fresh air.
If you suspect someone has swallowed a hair styling product, have them drink a few sips of water and then check the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for help or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222. If the hair product is in the eyes or on the skin, rinse first with room temperature water for 15 minutes then check the online tool or call Poison Control for further guidance. If someone has inhaled fumes from one of these products, they should immediately get fresh air then call Poison Control or use the online tool.
Karen D. Dominguez, PharmD
Certified Specialist in Poison Information