Vancouver hair salons go green

Local hair salons banish noxious chemicals from their repertoires.

Credit: Flickr / typester

Local hair salons push ecofriendly products that won’t damage hair or lungs

The hair salon has long been a gathering spot for women across the globe, and no less so in Vancouver. It’s a place for laughter, peace, a chance to talk, to escape and to transform. But hair salons are going through a transformation of their own. Due to the chemicals that engulf salon air and rest on client’s heads and hairdresser’s hands, salons are going green—and it’s more than just a fad.

Chloe Scarf, hairdresser and owner of Seventh Heaven Bio Salon and Gallery, sees the beauty industry’s evolution as a natural progression. “First, we were checking with what’s going inside our body and now we’re looking at what we’re putting on our bodies,” says Scarf, who has been aware of the effects hair products can have on the health of the human body since she began hairdressing 20 years ago.

Chloe Scarf, Seventh Heaven Bio Salon and Gallery

Chloe Scarf, owner of Seventh Heaven
Bio Salon and Gallery, warns against
using ammonia-based hair colour.

Trained as a colour technician, she began using low-ammonia products 10 years ago. Yet, while Scarf was using the best hair dye and bleach on the market, she still had “a natural aversion to it,” she says. “You stand [around in these] volatile fumes all day… That’s got to be bad for your health.”

Realizing that people are more suspicious of cancer-causing chemicals that exist in our food, air and water supply, she says, “Let’s start with the things we can have some control over.” Namely, our hair.

Two years ago, she moved from the trendy streets of Commercial Drive to start a laid back, beachfront salon in Surrey’s Crescent Beach called Seventh Heaven Bio Salon and Gallery. Her upstairs salon showcases local artists’ work on the walls, one-of-a-kind sculptures on the wooden floors and beautifully handcrafted furniture.

On top of Scarf’s artsy ambiance, she’s created what she calls a “bio salon.” She says, “My definition of a bio salon is a clean-air salon.” She uses no-ammonia colours, no perm or chemical straighteners, and maintains an aerosol-free environment.

In order to take the colour pigment out of hair, many stylists still use large amounts of ammonia in their hair dye and bleach, which is hazardous for the health of the hair and body.

The cuticle, the protective shield and most outer layer on a strand of hair, resembles the look of a well-structured fish scale. The fast-acting chemical combination of ammonia and protein, which is what the cuticle is made of, opens the scales to let the colour pigment in, never actually closing them, leaving your hair looking more like “swiss cheese,” says Scarf. Although ammonia affects certain individuals more than others, it will leave frizz and split-end behind with continued use.

Scarf says she uses special bleach in her salon that is derived from seaweed (with no ammonia). Scarf’s hair dye uses corn alcohol as an alternative to ammonia, which is smell- and itch-free, while still having the same positive colouring effect on the hair.

Scarf claims that her ammonia-free and aerosol-free environment has opened doors for many of her clients who were unable to colour their hair before, due to severe irritation and allergic reactions.


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“If you talk to anybody who says they’re 100 percent organic, they’re lying,” she says remaining honest about hair care products. “The industry isn’t there yet, but it’s an evolution.”

Chemical solutions

“There’s certain things that people want that can’t be done without chemicals,” says Missy Clarkson, a local hairdresser with a penchant for sustainability. To be 100 percent organic, she says, hair care products would have to be kept in the fridge to keep from rotting. The only way to get around this would be to use “baking soda as shampoo and apple cider vinegar as conditioner,” she says.

[pagebreak]Missy Clarkson, Coup Salon

The interior of Missy Clarkson’s Coup Salon, in Chinatown, is made entirely from reclaimed materials.

“Doing hair is one of my great loves in life,” says Clarkson, “but I’m not super keen on dumping chemicals down the drain all day for a living, not to mention putting my clients and myself at risk with the overuse of these chemicals.”

Clarkson has recently opened an environmentally conscious hair salon in Chinatown’s Shanghai Alley called Coup Salon. Different from Scarf’s clean-air environment, Clarkson believes aerosols can be an “occasionally necessary evil,” but purchases a line that donates a portion of their proceeds to reduce global carbon emissions.

Clarkson—whose aim for the salon is to be “as natural as possible, while still being realistic”—will work with extremely low amounts of ammonia in her dye and bleach line, which feature “all the realms of colour” her clients look for while still “being as conscious as possible,” she says.

Both, Seventh Heaven and Coup are against perming and chemically straightening hair. The chemicals used in these processes intentionally destroy the shape-forming protein bonds in your hair, then rebuild them—which is what makes your hair straight or curly—after which stylists will apply neutraliser, a chemical combination that puts bonds back together again in order to achieve the appearance of healthy hair.

These dangerous chemicals, which are in so many hair products, are now “in your hair, which means they’re in your skin, which means they’re in your lungs,” Clarkson says.


Be salon savvy

Get tips for ensuring your next trip to the hair salon ends in good hair and healthy lungs.


One of Clarkson’s main concerns is Sodium Lauryl Sulphate. Sodium Lauryl Sulphate, or Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLS), is used widely in shampoos and detergent because of its foaming ability, as well as in bleach and hair dye.

Alone, SLS can cause irritations, skin rashes, hair loss, dandruff, allergic reactions and blindness. “Manufacturers use it because it is cheap,” says Clarkson, but if you have cancerous cells or “thin skin, you’re going to absorb it more than the next person.”

The combination of SLS with an array of other chemicals forms nitrosamines, a chemical reaction that is a carcinogen. Because SLS is derived from coconuts, many organic manufacturers get away with using it in their “organic” products, because manufacturers don’t explain that SLS mixed with another chemical could become a nitrosamine.

Now that SLS has become linked with cancer, more organic products that contain SLS will label it “a natural surfactant made from coconut/pomme oil.” Since there is no way to tell which bottle has formed a nitrosamine without lab testing, Clarkson advises to stay away from SLS altogether.

A breath of ‘fresh’ hair

According to Sean Gray, senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., just being in an environmentally unfriendly salon is “worse exposure than three seconds of you spraying just your own hair at home. It’s constant at a salon, one after another, spraying all these chemicals in the air.” Salons are a Ground Zero for inhaling ammonia, fragrance and phthalates (a common plasticizer) because they exist in mousses, gels, hair spray, dye and bleach—the mortar for almost every hairdresser working today.

And hairdressers who work at salons that use high-risk chemicals in their products are in greater danger than the client sitting on the chair. “They’re exposed every single day, over and over,” says Gray.

Phthalates, which are widely used as a plasticizer in perfumes and hairsprays to make the substance stick to hair, skin and clothes, are a toxin we should be aware of, explains Gray. Phthalates are linked with kidney, liver and lung damage as well as developmental deformities in the reproductive organs of fetuses in woman exposed while pregnant. Gray says that the first thing he tells pregnant women to let go of is the hair or nail salon.

For those with asthma or allergies, he also warns a reaction can be activated when in contact with phthalates, such as at a hair salon—whether you’re breathing toxins in or applying them to your scalp.

“Long-term cancer risks, allergy concerns, skin toxicants, immune system toxicity and neurotoxicity” are the effects of inhaling or applying chemicals to our scalps.

Affordably priced alternatives to these chemical-infested salons are on the rise with Scarf’s bio salon, Seventh Heaven, and Clarkson’s low-ammonia colours and highly educated staff at Coup. Clarkson and Scarf believe that toxic hair salons will eventually be a worry of the past.

“We all know that smell, walking into a hair salon,” says Gray. “That very ‘chemically’ smell. That means that stuff has gotten into the air and is now is your lungs.

“There’s a general rule of thumb” for detecting the presence of toxins in the air, he adds. “If you can smell it, it’s probably not a good thing.”

A new way of doing business

Amber George, owner of the new downtown North Vancouver salon, Verve Hair Lounge, is doing her part by designing her trendy ’40s-themed hair salon ecofriendly. George says it’s the duty of new hair salons and businesses to jump on the ecofriendly bandwagon. Since salons connect with people on a daily basis, it’s important to be educated about the green movement. [pagebreak]

Amber George, Verve Salon, North Vancouver

Amber George, owner of Verve Hair Lounge
in North Vancouver, predicts an industry
seachange as companies “race” to
develop more ecofriendly colour lines.

During the renovations at her salon, George saved money and helped the environment: she reused materials, recycled an entire wall, used natural linoleum flooring, earth-friendly paints, recycled mirrors and unique second-hand furniture. On top of the recycled decorating scheme, Verve is also aware of how much paper they consume, using earth-friendly business cards and minimal paper.

“It’s a lot easier to change the type of paper you use than science,” she says. And a lot of science goes into colour, bleach and hair repairing serum. George claims that over the years she has seen a significant decrease in the amount of packaging coming into salons; suppliers are reusing shipment boxes and refillable bottles of their product.

George’s salon uses Redken products, which aren’t known as the most environmentally friendly choice, but does say that hair products are advancing in positive ways. She believes that the hair industry will continue to become more eco-conscious and predicts that within five to 10 years most salon products will be ecofriendly.

Be salon savvy

Get tips for ensuring your next trip to the hair salon ends in good hair and healthy lungs.

The hair industry is in a race to achieve an entirely ecofriendly line, she says. “It’s a billion-dollar industry: the only way to keep up is to be innovative. They’re constantly coming up with new things,” says George. “The first person to come out with that (ecofriendly) colour line or lightener is going to win.”