For at least five years, Donald Trump has been making false claims about hairspray and its impact on the ozone layer. Most recently, the likely Republican presidential nominee made comments at a campaign rally in West Virginia:
- Trump said “hairspray’s not like it used to be” because chemicals in it that affect the ozone layer have been banned. Many countries began phasing out the ozone-depleting substances in hairspray in the late 1980s, but these regulations wouldn’t affect the quality of hairspray.
- He also said using hairspray in his apartment, “which is all sealed,” would prevent any ozone-depleting substances from escaping into the environment. But these chemicals would still make their way out, multiple experts told us.
Hairspray is made up of chemicals that make hair stiff and a propellant. Hairspray and many other aerosols used chlorofluorocarbons as propellants until many major countries began phasing out these chemicals after the signing of the Montreal Protocol in 1987. CFCs are potent ozone-depleting substances.
In the place of CFCs, many countries started using hydrochlorofluorocarbons and hydrofluorocarbons as propellants in aerosols. CFCs, HCFCs and HFCs are all potent greenhouse gases. But HCFCs are about 5 percent to 10 percent as potent at depleting ozone as CFCs, while HFCs are generally not thought of as ozone-depleting substances. Though still used in other forms, HCFCs were phased out of aerosols in the United States in 1994, while HFCs still remain in use.
Trump has made claims about hairspray and the ozone layer at least three times. Back in 2011 in Sydney, he implied the “eight-inch concrete floors” and “eight-inch concrete walls” of Trump Tower would prevent hairspray from “destroying the ozone that’s 400 miles up in the air.” In December 2015, at a campaign rally in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, Trump also said he doesn’t “think anything gets out” of his “sealed” apartment when he uses hairspray.
On May 5, 2016, at a campaign rally in Charleston, Trump implied that the regulations on hairspray and coal mining are both unwarranted. At the rally, an official from the West Virginia Coal Association endorsed Trump and presented him with a hard hat. Trump tried on the hat, which prompted him to talk about his hair:
Trump, May 5: Give me a little spray. … You know you’re not allowed to use hairspray anymore because it affects the ozone, you know that, right? I said, you mean to tell me, cause you know hairspray’s not like it used to be, it used to be real good. … Today you put the hairspray on, it’s good for 12 minutes, right. … So if I take hairspray and I spray it in my apartment, which is all sealed, you’re telling me that affects the ozone layer? “Yes.” I say no way folks. No way. No way. That’s like a lot of the rules and regulations you people have in the mines, right, it’s the same kind of stuff.
We contacted Trump’s campaign for comment, but it hasn’t responded. If someone does get back to us, we will update this report accordingly. In the next sections, we’ll outline how and why many countries agreed to phase out CFCs and replace them with HCFCs and HFCs. We’ll also explain why using hairspray inside wouldn’t prevent ozone-depleting substances from reaching the atmosphere, as Trump claimed.
Countries Agree to Ban CFCs
First developed in the 1930s under the trade name Freon, CFCs were originally assumed to be safe for the environment. For this reason, CFCs made their way into a slew of household items, from the coolants used in refrigerators to Styrofoam to aerosols like hairspray.
But in the 1970s researchers began questioning the safety of these chemicals. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina, chemists at the University of California, Irvine at the time, discovered that CFCs were capable of depleting the ozone layer — winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1995 for their work.
Then in the 1980s, scientists realized the ice particles in clouds over the Artic and Antarctic sped up the process Molina and Rowland originally discovered. Joseph Farman, a geophysicist at the British Antarctic Survey at the time, and researchers at NASA found a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica that was roughly the size of the United States.
How do CFCs deplete the ozone layer? When a CFC molecule makes it to the stratosphere, solar radiation breaks it down, leaving behind a lone chlorine atom. The chlorine atom (Cl–) then reacts with an ozone molecule (O3), leaving behind chlorine oxide (ClO) and oxygen (O2). In fact, Molina discovered that one chlorine atom could start a chain reaction that would lead to the break up of around 100,000 ozone molecules.
First off, a CFC molecule doesn’t have 400 miles to travel to reach the ozone layer, as Trump claimed in 2011. About 90 percent of the ozone layer can be found between 6 to 10 miles above the earth’s surface, with the last 10 percent of the ozone layer extending as far as 30 miles above the surface. The stratosphere spans 5.5 to 30 miles above the earth’s surface.
Second, a depleted ozone layer is no small matter. A weakened ozone layer leads to an increase in ultraviolet radiation, which then brings about higher rates of skin cancer, cataracts and immune system problems in human populations. Increased UV radiation can also disrupt vital processes in plants and marine ecosystems.
The gravity of the issue prompted policymakers globally to sign the Montreal Protocol on Sept. 16, 1987. The agreement took effect on Jan. 1, 1989, and aimed to reduce the production and use of CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances. However, the protocol has been amended six times to take into consideration new scientific information and accelerate reductions in CFC and HCFC use. First signed by 46 countries, the protocol now has close to 200 signatories, including the United States.
In 2014, five international entities, including the United Nations Environmental Program and NASA, published a report that found actions “taken under the Montreal Protocol have led to decreases in the atmospheric abundance of controlled ozone-depleting substances (ODSs), and are enabling the return of the ozone layer toward 1980 levels.” In fact, the report states the recovery of the ozone layer is “expected to occur before midcentury in midlatitudes and the Arctic, and somewhat later for the Antarctic ozone hole.”
In short, the propellants used in hairspray and other substances, CFCs in particular, have been banned. But the chemicals that make hair stiff weren’t subject to these regulations. And CFCs were banned for good reason, despite Trump’s implication. Regulations implemented with the Montreal Protocol appear to be reversing the damage done to the ozone layer by CFCs in hairspray and other substances.
HFCs: For Better and For Worse
While hairspray no longer uses CFCs to propel the stiffening agent out of the can, it does use other chemicals as propellants that are potent greenhouse gases — namely HFCs.
In fact, the aforementioned 2014 report also found that “climate benefits of the Montreal Protocol could be significantly offset by projected emissions of HFCs used to replace” ozone-depleting substances.
Today HFC use (in hairspray and otherwise) “makes a small contribution” to greenhouse gas emissions each year, explain the report authors. But emissions from HFCs “are currently growing at a rate of about 7% per year” and increasing demand could result in HFC emissions reaching levels “nearly as high as the peak emission of CFCs” by 2050.
To be clear, CFCs are detrimental to the environment for at least two reasons — they efficiently deplete ozone and they are potent greenhouse gases. That is, they contribute to global warming. HFCs, on the other hand, do not contribute to ozone depletion directly and efficiently like CFCs. But they still negatively impact the climate as greenhouse gases.
Speaking about her Oct. 22, 2015, study published in Geophysical Research Letters, Hurwitz told Phys.org that her results don’t suggest “HFCs are an existential threat to the ozone layer.” Still, “HFCs are, in fact, weak ozone-depleting substances,” she said.
Hurwitz also explained to us by email that “[p]er unit mass, CFC-11 causes about 400 times more depletion of the protective stratospheric ozone than the HFCs, while HCFC-22 causes 8 times more ozone depletion” than HFCs, for example. So the effect of HFCs on the ozone layer is significantly less than that of CFCs, but it’s not zero.
In addition, Steve Montzka, a chemist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reiterated to us by email, “It was never the stiffening agent in the spray that caused the problem [with the ozone layer], it was the propellant.” We can’t comment on whether “hairspray’s not like it used to be,” as Trump claimed. But we can say changes in hairspray quality wouldn’t be a result of the replacement of CFCs with HFCs due to regulations on the former.
Trump’s Not-So-Sealed Apartment
We also asked Montzka whether using hairspray inside would prevent CFCs or HFCs from having an effect on the ozone layer compared with using it outside, as Trump claimed. “It makes absolutely no difference!” he said. If you spray these chemicals “inside your house or apartment, it will eventually make it outside.”
“These gases cannot and are not confined to the kitchen or bedroom; they mix, diffuse, and are moved out of the local release area to be transported throughout the lower atmosphere (over months) before they are transported upward to the stratosphere,” where the ozone layer is located, David Fahey, a physicist at NOAA, told us in an email.
In sum, the “eight-inch concrete floors” and “eight-inch concrete walls” of Trump Tower wouldn’t prevent the propellants in hairspray from reaching the ozone layer, which is 6 to 30 miles, not 400 miles, above the earth’s surface. This means Trump’s hairspray use over the years has either directly (through CFCs) or indirectly (HFCs) contributed to the depletion of the ozone layer, albeit to a very small extent, despite what he has claimed.
Editor’s Note: SciCheck is made possible by a grant from the Stanton Foundation.