Nail Salon Workers Exposed to Untested Chemicals


In the United States, the nail salon industry is booming. For many women in the U.S., getting manicures and pedicures is a relaxing, enjoyable experience. Not much attention, however, is given to the nail salon workers themselves. The number of nail salon workers in the U.S. has tripled over the past decade to more than 380,000 nationwide, with women making up 96 percent of the industry's workforce. Asian and Pacific Islander (API) women in particular dominate the nail salon industry as both owners and workers. The industry estimates that approximately 42 percent of all nail salon workers nationwide are Asian, with Californian women comprising approximately 21 percent of the entire national population of nail salon workers.

Until recently, the health and safety concerns of nail salon workers have been largely overlooked. These workers, who meet the growing demand for nail services, are overwhelmingly women of color, and many are of reproductive age. On a daily basis and often for long periods of time, nail salon workers handle toxic solvents, chemicals, and glues known to be carcinogenic and/or suspected to cause reproductive harm or other health impacts. These chemicals may be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, some accumulating in the body over time. Childbearing women may also pass these toxins to fetuses or to newborns when breastfeeding.

The cosmetology industry uses more than 10,000 chemicals in its products, 89 percent of which have not been evaluated for safety, according to the nonprofit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which compiles available evidence in its Skin Deep database. According to the database, the polishes, acrylics and other products used in nail salons contain some twenty chemicals flagged as having "potential symptoms and health effects" by the Environmental Protection Agency. Three ingredients of particular concern in many nail polishes are toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate, which have been linked to reproductive harm including miscarriages, infertility, and birth defects, as well as cancer. Further, exposure to strong solvents used to remove nail polish can lead to immediate side effects such as nose, throat, lung, skin and eye irritation, as well as headaches, dizziness and confusion.

The Skin Deep database also highlights chemicals banned by the European Union and since removed by international brands like OPI, Sally Hansen and Revlon. If the European Union can do it, why can't the U.S.? One answer is the well-resourced and aggressive lobbying arm of the cosmetic industry. The chemical, cosmetics, and plastics industries have spent over $3.5 million on lobbying over the last two years to defeat various legislative measures that would at least require cosmetic manufacturers to clearly label toxic chemicals in their products. The chemical, cosmetics and plastics industries claim that recent legislative victories limiting and/or regulating the use of toxic chemicals in cosmetics are driven more by ideological activism than by sound science–which brings me to my next point.

Despite the daily, consistent exposure of nail salon workers to these toxic chemicals, there is a significant lack of research examining the chronic health effects related to this type of exposure. While anecdotal evidence from nail salon workers of adverse reproductive and general health effects abounds, there is a critical need to create and fund long-term research to better understand the reproductive and larger health impacts of exposure to toxic chemicals. To date, no published studies have examined chronic health outcomes, such as birth defects, infertility, or cancers, of nail salon workers. Many cosmetic manufacturers point to the lack of research as evidence that the nail products they manufacture are not linked to adverse health consequences. This is dubious logic at best. As one doctor who studies occupational and environmental medicine has put it, "Just because we don't know something is dangerous doesn't mean it's safe."

Taking Action

In 2005, a group of advocates, community-based groups, nail salon workers and owners, and public agency allies came together to form the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative ("Collaborative"). The Collaborative's mission is to advance a preventative environmental health agenda to assure the health and safety of the nail salon and beauty communities in California. These efforts, along with advocacy in other parts of the country, prompted the California Collaborative, the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF), and Women's Voices of the Earth (WVE) to establish a national alliance to connect various regional and local activists and organizations focused on improving nail salon worker health and safety. Known as the National Healthy Nail Salon Alliance, we recently launched a website that serves as a "one stop shop" for important information/resources about toxic chemicals in nail products/salons and worker health issues. The goal of the Alliance is to advocate for and empower nail salon workers and owners and increase public awareness around this issue. We believe that no one should have to choose between their livelihood and their health.

For more information about the Alliance, please contact Dawn at dphilip@napawf.org.

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  • invalid-0

    Thank you for raising awareness of this important issue. I agree that no one should have to choose between their health and their ability to make a living, and am glad that you are focusing on bringing together owners and workers, as well as educating the general public about the health consequences of these chemicals.