Hair Styling Tools Pose Burn Risk for Kids: Study

4 min read

Oct. 24, 2023 – For parents and caregivers, stovetops and lit candles are among the most common red flags for burn injury risk, especially in young children. Yet there is another culprit lurking on bathroom and vanity counters that might escape notice: hair care or styling tools. 

A study presented this past weekend at the American Academy of Pediatrics annual meeting underscored the growing risk from hair styling tools among children and adolescents. Findings showed that between 2013 and 2022, there were more than 30,000 burn injuries and over 1,000 visits to emergency departments for care. What’s more, roughly 68% of these injuries were to children under the age of 10, and almost three-quarters happened in the home.

“When you think about it, it’s developmentally appropriate to have high curiosity in the younger age, as they haven’t quite learned the hazards surrounding certain things. A curling iron, for example, is one that could be left to cool on the counter, potentially leading them to reach for it,” said lead study author Brandon Rozanski MD, a pediatric resident at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, HI. 

 Rozanski said these figures likely underestimate that problem. (For their research, he and his colleagues relied on information from a national surveillance database that only captures emergency department visits.)

“If they went to their family doctor or if they were just managed at home, that’s not going to be included,” he explained. “So, my guess is that this might actually be more prevalent than what our study shows.”

Burns in Children Are a Global Issue

The CDC says that435 children and adolescents between the ages of 0 and 19 years are treated daily in emergency rooms for burn-related injuries. And the World Health Organization reports that burns are the fifth leading cause of nonfatal injuries in children.

Most of these burns are scalds from liquids or steam (especially among younger children) or from direct contact with fire or flames (especially in adolescents and teens). Rozanski said his study showed that among burn-related injuries from hair styling tools, hair curlers and curling irons accounted for 97.4%, followed by hair dryers, hair grooming accessories or equipment, and combs (including electric combs). 

Prabhu Senthil-Kumar, MD, a burn specialist focused on plastic surgery and reconstructive procedures at Virginia Commonwealth University Health’s Evans-Haynes Burn Center in Richmond, pointed out that it’s not just the hair appliances, but the products that are used with them that can also be dangerous.

“The products used for hairstyling have chemicals in them that come in different concentrations and formulations. These products are often developed for adults, whose skin is thicker and more robust and who can tolerate them at the dose at which they were designed. But if a child touches the product or uses the product, it can create a chemical burn,” he said.

Senthil-Kumar also noted that sometimes, "emission-based" hair products, like those that have alcohol, can also ignite when used with a curling device.

An Ounce of Prevention

While most hair styling appliance burns in children are not more serious than second degree, meaning there is blistering involved, some may require hospital admission or a transfer to a burn unit. The CDC reported that about two children of every 435 visiting the emergency department daily for a burn emergency died from their injuries – injuries that are highly preventable.

“One thing that I always hit home on is the age-appropriate use of these tools,” said Rozanski. “I recommend that parents probably not allow kids to use them without, or even with, supervision until their teenage years, when they have demonstrated understanding of the dangers.”

Both Rozanski and Senthil-Kumar also noted that these devices, especially hair dryers, can reach temperatures as high as 450 F within minutes, underscoring the need to keep them well out of reach of wandering eyes and hands so they have time to cool down. Hair products should likewise be kept away from children and stored out of sight in cabinets.

Should burns happen, Senthil-Kumar said that he advises that parents or caregivers get the child to safety, away from the device, remove constricting clothing, and rinse the area with room-temperature tap water, being sure not to rub the area. Ideally, they should reach out to a hospital or emergency room, especially if the burns are on the scalp or face.

“Oftentimes, burn wounds evolve,” he said. “It depends on how much heat was incurred and how long the [child] was in contact with the heat in terms of the depth of the injury and the type of treatment needed. What you see at the time of the injury will not be the same 24 hours after.”

Finally, the best strategy is situational awareness. When it comes to burns, it can make a world of difference.