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Written by Amanda S. (Majoring in Environmental Studies at York University)

The nail care business is no longer a luxury, but is instead a service that is more common with women as a result of the rise of the discounted nail salon. However, the growing popularity of nail salons has raised questions about the health of nail salon workers. Nail salons contain a high number of toxic chemicals and the workers who are exposed to them are at risk of developing serious health problems. Exposure to chemicals, especially those referred to as the ‘toxic trio’: formaldehyde, toluene, and phthalates, are known to cause dermatological, neurological, respiratory, and reproductive health problems and are also carcinogenic. Low entry skills, along with ethnic business networks and low English proficiency have drawn many Vietnamese and Chinese immigrant women to this sector. Factors like limited language skills, poor ventilation and insufficient knowledge about health and safety practices are factors that contribute to worker’s exposure to these toxins. This is an environmental justice issue that involves the unequal distribution of workplace exposures and environmental risks. The lack of government regulation of compounds in cosmetics, along with a vulnerable population highlights an environmental justice issue that involves the intersectionality of race, class, and specifically gender in this growing industry.

According to the United States Department of Labor, the chemicals that nail salon technicians are exposed to include acetone, acetonitrile, butyle acetate, dibutyl phthalate, ethyl acetate, ethyl methacrylate, isopropyl acetate, methacrylic acid, methyl methacrylate, and quaternary ammonium compounds (United States Department of Labor, n.d). Many of the chemicals that nail technicians are handling are known carcinogens, respiratory irritants, allergens, and reproductive and developmental toxicants (Quach, Liou, Fu, Mendiratta, Tong, & Reynolds, 2011a). These chemicals cause headaches, dizziness, irritated nose, throat, eyes, and skin, breathing problems, vomiting, weakness, exhaustion, asthma-like attacks, wheezing, allergic reactions, skin burns, loss of smell, difficulty concentrating, and numbness (United States Department of Labor, n.d). In one study, it was found that workers who performed pedicures were more likely to have higher levels of ethyl acetate, while workers who performed acrylic and silk nails had lower levels of ethyl acetate and toluene, which could suggest that products used for those services may contain lower levels or may not contain the compounds (Quach, Gunier, Tran, Von Behren, Doan-Billings, Nguyen, Okahara, Lui, Nguyen, Huynh, & Reynolds, 2011b).

nailpolish bottles

The chemicals in products used in nail salons have only now begun to be tested in humans. Most products do not carry labels of the chemicals that the product contains, and their use is not seriously regulated or monitored (Rochon Ford, 2014). Unlike other industries, the nail salon business is unregulated in many parts of the country, so the enforcement of health standards has been more challenging (Schlesinger, 2011). Many of the substances found in nail salons do not have occupational exposure limits. In the United States, regulatory oversight of salons is typically limited to inspection and licensing by Boards of Cosmetology for compliance with hygiene issues and basic sanitation most relevant to the protection of the public from infectious disease (Roelofs, Azaroff, Holcroft, Nguyen, & Doan, 2007). The products themselves are evaluated by the industry through the Cosmetic Industry Review, but the Environmental Working Group found “that the Cosmetic Industry Review has reviewed only 11% of the 10,500 cosmetic ingredients listed with FDA and almost all products contain at least some un-assessed ingredients” (Roelofs et al, p. 354, 2007). Six phthalates have been banned by Health Canada in soft vinyl children’s toys; however its use in cosmetics is not restricted (David Suzuki Foundation, 2014).

The question then turns to how nail salon workers can be protected from these harmfulchemicals. If they cannot be eliminated, they can be controlled in order to ensure that workers are not overexposed. Some of the ways that exposures of the most problematic chemicals can be controlled include source reduction, like using less-toxic products; personal protective equipment like nitrile gloves and N95 masks, improved ventilation, like using local and general exhaust ventilation that diverts chemicals at the point of generation; workplace practice controls like safe storage, transfer, and handling of compounds; and other administrative controls like having regular breaks outside of salons (Quach et al, 2012).

In the United States, some municipalities have made efforts to work directly with nail salon workers and owners to improve working conditions (Rochon Ford, 2014). In San Francisco, for example, a Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Program was implemented in 2013, which was the first of its kind (Rochon Ford, 2014). It gave official recognition to salons that implemented safer practices and the use of safer products. The goal of the program is to reduce the occupational hazards for nail salon technicians as well as reducing the exposure of city residents to the toxic chemicals in nail products, through the recognition and the promotion of nail salons that voluntarily discontinue the purchase and the application of products that contain chemicals that are outlined in their criteria (Rochon Ford, 2014). Another initiative, called the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative involved manufacturers, stakeholders, nail salon owners and workers, environmental and public health advocates, and government agencies. It was an important member in pushing the movement towards the San Francisco Ordinance (Rochon Ford, 2014).

Having recognized that antagonizing nail salon technicians and penalizing the use of toxic chemicals may be ineffective in producing change, they “created a model for a voluntary recognition program to promote healthy practices, and developed a program that outlines ten requirements to protect the health of workers and clients” (Rochon Ford, p. 12, 2014). A city Ordinance was created with the commitment to create and implement a program that helps local nail salons to adopt safer practices, and then recognize these salons for their efforts, which includes the development of guidelines in the appropriate languages (Rochon Ford, 2014).

The Department of Environment concluded that only products that did not contain toluene, dibutyl phthalates, methyl ethyl ketone, and formaldehyde are considered safer (Rochon Ford 2014). Governed by this research, ten criteria were then outlined that would be required for a salon to be considered ‘healthy’. Those ten criteria include choosing nail polishes that do not contain the toxic trio of formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalates, and toluene, using safer nail polish, avoiding the use of nail polish thinners unless they are necessary, and avoiding the use of thinners that contain methyl ethyl ketone and toluene; ensuring that staff wear nitrile gloves when handling nail products, ventilating the salon to improve the air quality, installing mechanical ventilation units within a year of entering the recognition program, training the nail salon owners and staff on safer practices using the San Francisco’s Environment Guide,  permitting San Francisco Environment program staff to monitor the air quality in the salon, be committed to adopting safer nail products, and not permitting customers to bring products that do not meet the program criteria (Rochon Ford, 2014).

In Canada, Health and Occupational health and safety fall under the jurisdiction of provinces. In Ontario, the regulation of toxic chemicals is the responsibility of the provincial Ministry of Labour. In the ministerial Table of Occupational Exposure Limits, only toluene and formaldehyde are listed (Rochon Ford, 2014). The Ministry of Labour, however, has acknowledged that the occupational exposure to dibutyl phthalates must be controlled, and although the recommended limit has not been adopted formally as of yet, the Ministry recommended for it to be included under the official version of the Regulation (Rochon Ford,
2014). This limit has been accepted by other provinces, like Saskatchewan and British Columbia, which could encourage Ontario to adopt it as well (Rochon Ford, 2014).

The popularity of nail salons has raised serious concerns about worker’s health. Exposure to the ‘toxic trio’ of chemicals has shown to have effects on workers dermatological, neurological, respiratory, and reproductive health, along with being known carcinogens. Insufficient regulation, poor ventilation, and language and cultural barriers continue to contribute to worker’s exposure to these toxins. City health initiatives, like that of San Francisco, aim to protect worker’s health by properly regulating chemicals and improving workspace in order to ensure that both workers and clients are not harmed by toxins. Women’s disproportionate exposure to the chemicals in this environment force serious questions about the role of women in environmental justice issues and in the decision making processes that impact women’s health and livelihood. Women have largely been ignored in the environmental justice movement, despite academics citing the ‘trinity’ of race, class, and gender. Women’s struggles in environmental justice demonstrate the need for more attention to women’s issues in the movement and the need to look at gender as a form of oppression. Attention must be drawn to the invisibility of women’s struggles in environmental justice, and their voice must be included in the decision making processes. It is only then that the cleaner and safer environments that we
strive for can be achieved.


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