La Grange salon owner aims to clean up industry

LA GRANGE – Ross Bartolomei suspects his body felt the effects of toxic chemicals well before a recent round of chemotherapy literally burned his lungs.

For nearly 25 years leading up to his August diagnosis of diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, Bartolomei spent almost every day styling hair while surrounded by a swarm of chemicals, such as ammonia, which is found in hair color.

Although ammonia hasn’t been directly linked to cancer, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends limited exposure to the chemical at certain concentrations.

“They would use that to wake you up if you were knocked out,” said Bartolomei, owner of Salon Hype in La Grange and Burr Ridge. “[When used on people’s hair], their skin would absorb all that color and it would stay with them on their scalp.”

Bartolomei said he knows a lot of hairdressers who have been diagnosed with lymphoma, and he thinks all the chemicals involved in his work played a role in his diagnosis. Bartolomei’s prognosis is good: His form of lymphoma is curable, and except for one reaction to a chemical that burned his lungs, he’s getting through chemotherapy well, with two more rounds planned.

And now, he’s on a mission. In June, even before his diagnosis, Bartolomei met with his staff about transitioning to a new, ammonia-free hair color product called INOA, produced by L’Oreal. Instead of ammonia, the product uses mineral oil, which acts as a barrier between the skull to prevent staining the scalp.

“Who would ever think that instead of ammonia you would use mineral oil, which is something that’s natural, to open up the hair cuticle?” said Bartolomei, who has worked a hair stylist on TV and movie sets. “It’s really an amazing product to work with.”

For the past few years, Bartolomei has been developing his own line of shampoos and conditioners free of the chemicals paraben and sulfate. After his diagnosis in August, doctors told Bartolomei to spend wless time in the salon, which has, ironically, given him more time to develop the products. He has the prototypes done, and he expects to launch the products early next year.

“[The diagnosis] just reassured me as to what needs to be done,” he said. “We spend so much time in this industry worrying about trends and what’s in in fashion, and I’m right there with everybody. But I think a lot of people have forgotten that our environment has been so tainted with [products]. I’ve been inhaling hair colors, which are ammonia based, for 25 years.”

Manufacturers don’t always get the chemical-free products right initially, which is why it’s taken Bartolomei a few years to tweak his own products.

“It’s kind of something that’s on the forefront that’s going to take people a while to realize that it’s better for you,” he said. “Constant exposure to these chemicals is, I think, really abusive.”

Bartolomei said only 3 percent of salons in the U.S. are switching to the ammonia-free hair color, which he finds discouraging.

“I think it’s a matter of changing the way people think,” he said.