Chemicals put hairdressers' careers on line

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hairdresserTens of thousands of hairdressers have a debilitating and career-threatening skin disease caused by the chemicals used in their job.

Junior hairdressers, who are usually assigned to work such as washing clients' hair, are most at risk, with up to 35 per cent developing occupational-contact dermatitis in the first two years of work.

The disease can cause skin to redden, swell, blister, flake, crack and itch.

Skin specialist Rosemary Nixon, of the Occupational Dermatology Research and Education Centre, in Melbourne, said the dermatitis was affecting tens of thousands of hairdressers and barbers.

Her comments follow a study in Britain that found almost half of its hairdressers faced the same problem because of widespread flouting of safety regulations by salon operators.

Dr Nixon said staff were contracting dermatitis through regular exposure to peroxides, soaps and shampoos. "Their hands get irritated by the frequent and repetitive exposure to water and can become allergic to the main chemicals used in their profession, such as dyes and perming solutions," Dr Nixon said.

She said unprotected "wet work" for more than two hours a day was a major risk factor. Many of the centre's patients who were hairdressers had to find other work.

Once a person has the disease, the prognosis is generally poor, with symptoms persisting over a long period despite a change of occupation.

Dr Nixon said school career counsellors should be more aware of the problem when giving advice to students, as some might be more susceptible to the disease such as those who had eczema as babies.

Tanya Gwin, vice-principal of the Australian College of Hair Design and Beauty, who experienced the condition when she was starting out, said young hairdressers were now taught how to protect themselves.

"It is mandatory from day one to learn how to avoid contracting the disease," she said.

Problems could be avoided if hairdressers used synthetic gloves made from vinyl or nitrile whenever they washed hair or used chemicals.

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