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Styling Friend or Foe: Is Hairspray Bad for Your Hair Health?
Dr Meena Zareie (GMC)
Medically reviewed by
Dr Meena Zareie (GMC)
Updated on April 4, 2024

If you enjoy styling your hair but are also preoccupied with keeping it healthy, you may be wondering whether hairspray is bad for your hair. If so, you will be happy to learn that this fixating product is generally safe and doesn’t harm your strands if applied correctly [1]. 

While it is true that a few decades ago, hairspray could contain harmful substances, some of which could hurt your lungs, damage your hair or even cause cancer [2-5], nowadays things have changed. That is because new cosmetic regulations have forced manufacturers to replace components deemed unsafe for consumers [4]. 

However, while it is not known to cause hair loss or significant damage to your strands with typical use, hairspray can still cause some minor hair problems when applied too frequently or improperly. The most common of these are causing build-up, dry, brittle hair or scalp irritation [1].

Keep reading this article to find out more about:

  • What hairspray is and how it works to keep your style in shape
  • The impact hairspray can have on your strand health
  • How to apply hairspray correctly and avoid common mistakes
  • What chemicals in hair products can damage your hair
  • Some good styling alternatives to hairspray
Table of Contents

What is hairspray? 

Hairspray is a styling product frequently used to lock your hairdo into the desired shape and provide your hair with additional volume. It usually contains film-forming polymers, solvents (alcohol or water), propellants (substances that help the fluid leave the container), additives (silicones, vitamins, UV-protectors) and fragrance [4].   

Styling hair with hairspray

How does hairspray work?

This hair product works by coating your strands in a fine film of styling and fixating polymers (molecules composed of many repeating units, which give them high molecular weight). These polymers (e.g. polyquaternium-11, polyquaternium-4, polyvinylpyrrolidone) are water-soluble, which means they dissolve easily when you wash your hair.

Several types of these molecules are often combined in a hairspray, to achieve the desired hair hold, bounce, volume, non-clumping, flexibility, moisture resistance and airiness [6]. To achieve fixation, polymers deposit on the surface of the hair, causing strands to be attracted to one another. Then, they dry to create strong, clear films between your strands, similar to spot welds, locking them in the desired position.

The resulting bond is strong, yet flexible, allowing the hair to move and look natural, but at the same time maintaining your desired style. The hold hairspray has on your strands typically lasts until the spot welds are dissolved in water (e.g. by washing your hair) or they are mechanically broken (e.g. by strong wind or brushing your hair vigorously) [1][6]. 

Hair damage with hairspray under the microscope
Hairspray spot-weld seen under a microscope [1]

Is hairspray bad for your hair?

If applied correctly and not overused, most commercially available hairsprays are relatively harmless to your hair. That is because increased oversight in the cosmetic industry has led to the removal of dangerous chemicals, which have been replaced with safer alternatives. However, if you use hairspray frequently and/or in large quantities, it may have some negative impact on your hair and scalp, as follows:

  • It can build up on your hair and scalp – if you apply hairspray often and don’t wash your hair regularly in between uses, the polymers that coat your strands can mix with dust and dirt from the environment and produce buildup [1]. This can make your strands look dull and unhealthy, it can produce flaking that resembles dandruff and it may also clog your pores and hair follicles, leading to common scalp problems, such as acne or scalp folliculitis
  • It can dry up your hair – since most hairsprays contain alcohol and some contain silicates as well, overuse can remove hair moisture, leaving your strands dry and more vulnerable to mechanical hair breakage. If this happens, you may want to start using a good shampoo for dry hair
  • It can sometimes alter your hair shade – while hairsprays don’t physically modify your hair colour, applying a large quantity can level the natural tilt of your hair cuticles. This can affect the angle at which light reflects off your strands, slightly changing the way your hair hue is perceived by the human eye. Research shows that hairsprays with stronger holds are more likely to produce this effect than lighter ones [7]
Types of hairspray

What are the main kinds of hairspray?

There are several ways to classify hairsprays, according to their various characteristics. Here are some of the most common:

By fixating strength

Based on the type of hold it can provide your hair, hairsprays can be:

  • Light hold – typically used as a gentle way to keep rebellious strands from popping out of place throughout the day. 
  • Medium hold – Somewhat stronger than the light hold, but still flexible, the medium hold hairspray is often used for slicked-back looks, ponytails or pinned-up hair.  
  • Boost hold – This kind of hairspray works best for providing hold and volume to tall, ample hairstyles. However, it still provides an airy, natural appearance. 
  • Extra hold – Best for long hair styled in curls and waves, this hairspray keeps your locks from falling flat under the weight of your hair. 
  • Freeze hold – If you need to fixate an extremely intricate or very tall style into place, this type of hairspray locks it in securely, allowing you to move freely without worrying it will fall apart. 

By spraying mechanism

There are two main mechanisms which help your hairspray leave its container and be pulverised onto your hair:

  • Aerosol hairsprays – these use propellants such as propane, butane or dimethyl ether (DME) and water to turn the fixating fluid into a mist.
  • Non-aerosol hairsprays – these use a pump instead of propellants to create the necessary pressure that converts the fluid into air-borne droplets. 

By the type of solvent used

Depending on the substance they use as a carrier for the hair-fixating fluid, there are two major kinds of hairspray: 

  • Alcohol-based – most commercially available hairsprays use different kinds of alcohol, such as ethanol or isopropanol. However, this can be somewhat problematic, because overuse can lead to dry, brittle hair. Moreover, isopropanol is a volatile organic compound so it can have a negative environmental impact [8], which is why many states have imposed limitations on its use in cosmetics. 
  • Water-based – Some hairsprays have completely eliminated alcohol from their formulas and replaced it with water. This option can be healthier for your hair and better for the environment as well.
Woman inhaling hairspray during hair application

Is hairspray bad for your lungs?

If used appropriately, hairspray should not normally cause any damage to your lungs. In the past, inhaling its aerosols regularly could indeed cause buildup in your airways, trouble breathing, coughing and pulmonary issues [5]. However, since the tightening of regulations regarding the type and amount of volatile organic compounds hairspray is allowed to contain, lung issues caused by inhaling its droplets have become very rare [4].

Can hairspray cause cancer? 

In recent years, much more thorough regulations and verifications have been set in place for cosmetic products in the Western world and most substances that can cause cancer have been replaced with safer alternatives. That is why it is unlikely that your hairspray contains carcinogens.

However, if you purchase this type of hair product from a part of the world where such regulations don’t exist or are not enforced, there is some risk that it could contain substances that may increase your risk of developing cancer, such as benzene, vinyl chloride, and methylene chloride [9]. If you want to be on the safe side, opt for non-aerosol hairspray, as most of these harmful substances are used as propellants.  

How to apply hairspray correctly

How to apply hair spray correctly?

Since there are many kinds of hairspray, the best thing you can do is to read and follow the instructions on your product. However, here are some general tips on the best way to apply this product:

  1. Make sure the nozzle is clean and not blocked by hardened product before use
  2. Dry your hair before applying hairspray, to ensure that your final hairstyle looks the way you want it to.  
  3. Hold the spray bottle approximately 30 cm away from your hair during application
  4. Keep your eyes closed while spraying the product on your hair
  5. Spray in shorter bursts on the areas where you need it rather than one long, continuous press. 
  6. Clean the nozzle after you finish using your hairspray. 

Mistakes to avoid when using hairspray

Here are some of the most common things to avoid when applying hairspray to create your favourite style:

  • Using too much hairspray – you don’t need to add a very large amount of product for it to be effective in holding your style. On the contrary, using too much can load your hair and make it look hard and unnatural.
  • Applying hairspray before heat styling – while excessive heat styling is not good for your hair under any circumstance, using it on hairspray can increase the risk of overdrying and damaging your strands. 
  • Applying hairspray from the wrong distance – holding the bottle less than 25-30 cm away during use can weigh your hair down and make it look dull while holding it more than 30-35 cm away can render it less effective.   
  • Using hairspray too frequently – if you are constantly reapplying hairspray throughout the day, you may increase the risk of getting dry hair and irritating your scalp. And not washing regularly between applications can lead to product buildup. 
  • Combing your hair with hairspray on – brushing or combing your hair after you’ve applied hairspray can lead to damaging it by causing split ends instead of healthy hair. It can also lead to hair breakage. 
Man styling hair with hair spray alternatives

Hair spray alternatives you can use

If you would like to try other types of products that can hold your hair in place without having to spray them on, you can always use one of these options [1]:

  • Hair mousse – these products are usually applied on wet hair and provide hair volume when blow-dried. They contain very similar ingredients to hairsprays.
  • Hair gel – they can be applied to wet or dry hair, are available in a wide variety of hold strengths and often contain glycerin or a similar moisturiser, to create a wet look.    
  • Hair waxes and clays – these products are often used to achieve a strong hold and create special, more elaborate hairstyles. They can contain natural ingredients (e.g. beeswax) or synthetic options (e.g. polyethylene glycol). And applying them properly can be more difficult than other hair cosmetics, requiring some styling skills. 
  • Hair creams, pomades and emulsions – depending on the effect you are trying to achieve, different types of hair creams can provide a variety of holds and produce many types of texturing effects. They normally contain a hydrophobic base made of wax or oil and emulsifiers and depending on the formulation, may also contain polymers, thickeners, or texturising agents such as bentonite. These creams are often used as finishing touches after styling.
Hair products that can damage your hair

Hair products that can damage your hair

While hairspray is mostly safe to use in styling, there are hair products that can cause more significant damage with overuse. For example, frequently using bleach or hair dye can cause hair loss. That is because these harsh chemicals can penetrate the hair shaft, affecting its structure and making it easy to break off. Moreover, certain stronger formulations can irritate your scalp and even cause hair shedding from the roots. 

As a rule, it is a good idea to avoid frequent use of hair products that contain the following substances, as they can harm your hair and scalp:

  • Ammonia – when used frequently, this substance commonly found in hair dye can dry out your hair and damage its cuticles. In some cases, it can also irritate your scalp [10]. 
  • Hydrogen peroxide – often found in hair bleach and hair dye, this chemical increases oxidative stress on your hair, potentially causing hair loss and dermatitis with frequent use [11]
  • Sodium lauryl sulphate or sodium laureth sulphate – these powerful detergents can be found in shampoos and hair-cleaning products. Their excessive harshness can strip all the beneficial oils from your hair, leaving it dry and brittle. 
  • Alcohol – many hair products contain alcohol, such as propanol, isopropanol or ethanol as thickening agents or propellants. However, when used in large quantities, they can dry out your hair, exposing it to mechanical damage.  
  • Dimethicone – while this type of silicone can make your hair soft and shiny, it can dry out and irritate your scalp with frequent use. 
Woman concerned with hair health

Are you concerned about your hair health?

If you are experiencing hair thinning and are unsure whether it is caused by the hair products you use, it is best to book a consultation with a trichologist. That is because while certain chemicals in shampoos and styling products can make your hair fall out with overuse, this condition could also be the result of a type of alopecia, such as androgenetic alopecia, telogen effluvium or alopecia areata. And while some of these conditions resolve on their own in time, others can progress to the point where they can become difficult to manage.

A trichologist will examine your hair and scalp and may request blood tests for hair loss to ensure that they can provide you with an accurate diagnosis and the best hair loss treatment for women (or, by case, the most efficient hair loss treatment for men). If your hair thinning is caused by overuse of styling products that contain harsh chemicals, they will recommend a safe, healthy, personalised hair-care regimen that is designed specifically for your hair type.

However, if it is the result of alopecia, you will receive adequate treatment recommendations, such as taking Minoxidil, using a derma roller for hair growth or undergoing red light therapy for hair growth. Taking therapeutic action from the first signs of hair thinning and balding can significantly increase your chances of curbing your hair loss and achieving strand regrowth.

Styling Friend or Foe: Is Hairspray Bad for Your Hair Health?, Wimpole Clinic

Dr Meena Zareie (GMC)
Medically reviewed by Dr Meena Zareie (GMC)Updated on April 4, 2024
The Wimpole Clinic offers FUE Hair, Beard & Eyebrow Transplants & Trichology.
Talk to a specialist ☎ 020 7935 1861.

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